Sunday, January 20, 2008

What I'm Getting At

There are intentions behind actions, grand visions behind actions, and the results. I have been thinking about how it is that I went down to New Orleans last year with such a firm intention to bring empathy, compassion & awareness to the volunteer work that I wanted to do, to "walk in the dark without getting lost"... And yet I ended up with the results of... feeling very confused and in a lot of intense emotional pain. And other people were feeling very up-set & various other different un-met needs feelings. How? How did this happen?

I now see that sheer passion, excitement, and fervor simply is not enough to cut it. Nor is having extensive training in Nonviolent Communication and other related practices. Nor is even having a group of beloved friends. These are all important, but something more is needed. What is needed is a solid well-thought-out foundation and structure of support to withstand all the different chaotic forces of life.

First, what am I getting at here? What am I talking about and what I am wanting to have happen? "What" & "Why", before "How".

The summer of 2004 was a big time for me. One of the reasons is because that was when I discovered the work of Carl Rogers (also called the "Person-Centered Approach"). He talked about something that was then only semi-coherently formulating in my mind through my work with Nonviolent Communication. He said that through three specific qualities simultaneously being present in a relationship, constructive social/psychological change will inevitably occur. These three qualities are:

1. Being aware of yourself & your inner experience and honestly speaking about it.

2. Sensitively listening to & empathically understanding the other person.

3. Caring for the other person in an unconditionally accepting way.

The theory goes that when these three qualities are all simultaneously present in a relationship, either with one other individual or as a group, that positive growth & significant learning then comes forth. My own personal experience of the moments when I have been present with these three qualities together says that this is true. I view NVC as being a set of teachable skills to help bring these three qualities out into practice consciously at will. This is one reason why I am so enthusiastic about NVC.

Rogers then went on to say, particularly in his book “On Personal Power: Inner Strength and Its Revolutionary Impact”, that facilitators skilled at embodying these qualities within groups can potentially have a transformative effect on society. Revolutionary, in the anarchist sense of the term meaning people finding within themselves their own ability to act directly and decisively to meet needs and to act cooperatively & respectfully as groups to support each-other. Rogers' own experiences with group facilitation in this kind of way backed up this hypothesis. My own experiences with groups in NVC lead credibility to this theory for me as well. The idea now is to try out & apply this theory in "real life" – outside of a workshop setting.

I like New Orleans as a place to bring out new ideas/systems and to offer them for public use. The reason for this is that many of the different social structures there which exist to meet needs for the local community of New Orleans are simply not working, and people there openly acknowledge this fact. Whether we’re talking education, housing, the criminal justice system, trash removal, public safety, healthy food or clean water, the place is just a mess. When people's needs are not being met, people tend to be more open then to new kinds of ways for meeting needs – as long as they have trust that the new strategies have a chance of working. I would like to have this trust be based on a belief in one-another and in one’s self. This is because the kind of strategies that I would like to see used would come from each-other and ourselves. Not from outside of us. This is a new kind of foundation that I am talking about here.

I have been in touch with a friend of mine recently whom I met at the ADPCA conference last summer in NYC. She was a friend of Carl Rogers back in the day, and she said this in a recent e-mail:

"Carl often spoke of the idea that CHANGE (his favorite topic he claimed) was too much for the person if they did not have "a critical mass" or nucleus of at least six supporters."

This got me thinking...

In 2006 I went to New Orleans with 1 – 5 other people who had some degree of NVC experience. In 2007 I was in New Orleans with 0 – 3 other people with some NVC experience. I can’t give any set numbers with any of this, because there was a lot of coming and going involved both times. In 2006 I co-facilitated some NVC introductory workshops, but no ongoing NVC support structure came of that. In 2007 I reached out to all of the local NVC supporters in the New Orleans area, but no ongoing support structure came of that either. Both years, myself and the other NVC people there had no existing plan, agenda, routine, etc. Our intention going in was to volunteer, help out the people of New Orleans, and see what it is like. I am thinking of having something that is a bit more focused than this.

I would like to draw out in a bit more detail here the kind of group that I would like to create and be a part of. I realize that in some form this vision has been in my mind for at least the last ten years. This is both the culmination of what I see as being the ideal role of an anarchist revolutionary as well as where I see NVC training going when outside the bounds of the commercial workshop model. Ideally, groups such as what I describe would operate in areas of profound social/economic collapse – places that are in obvious "need" and where large institutions are not effectively addressing the situation.

I think that in such an environment it is important for everyone volunteering there (or, hell – anyone else who happens to be around at the time as well!) to receive some genuine empathic listening on a daily basis. I say "on a daily basis" because I have seen first-hand how things such as anger, frustration, disappointment, despair, guilt, etc. can just grow & grow, and I have seen (and experienced!) how if they continue growing unchecked and unattended to, they can eat you alive. New Orleans in many ways is a very "toxic environment", and in the emotional/spiritual realm I see things such as anger & despair as being some of the "toxins" that are going around. I see "sarcasm" as being another big one, and that some refreshing personal honesty & candor is quite needed. So a daily empathy group among volunteers in such an environment would be the equivalent to a daily cleaning – of the soul.

Here is a summary that I wrote up recently on how to have empathic listening groups:

"Empathic Listening Group

We all want to be heard and understood by other people. There are some practical skills that we can learn to get better at doing this. Here are some things that you can do as a group for supporting each-other in learning these skills and receiving empathic understanding.

Format for the group

- The group (3 people or more) sits down together in a circle with the clear explicit intention of having an empathic listening group.

- The setting is such that every person can make eye contact with each-other and physically hear each-other. External distractions are minimized as much as possible.

- The group takes turns with one person at a time being the focus of attention while the others are listeners.

- Divide the time equally, so that everybody can have the experience of both listening and being listened to.

- The person who is the focus of attention can talk about anything that is important and relevant to their lives at the moment. This can range from being a problem that they are facing or something very painful that they are going through, to something that they feel really good about and want to express.

Your Role as a Listener

- The listeners' job is to listen. This involves mainly shutting up, and keeping eye contact and all of one’s attention on the focus person.

- The purpose of this group is to develop skills for hearing and understanding other people. If thoughts come up about how you have had a similar experience, how the problem can be solved, what type of person the focus person must be, etc. then your attention right then is on the thoughts inspired by the focus person, but not on the person themself. Try as best as you can to put yourself in the speaker’s shoes as they are experiencing it at that moment.

- To help yourself in having a better understanding of the focus person’s experience in the moment, silently ask yourself: "What is this person feeling right now?" and "What is this person needing right now?"

- Consult the feelings & needs lists ( and to guide your curiosity towards what this person could possibly be experiencing. Do not look at the list if you are not genuinely curious, instead, look at the focus person.

- In order to make sure that your guesses are on track, ask the focus person if the feelings & needs that you previously identified are accurate.

- If during this session you find yourself eager to share some thoughts that you think would be really supportive, but that are not along the lines talked about above, write it down to remind yourself to talk with the person about it after the group. If you can, write down just a word or phrase of what you want to say, so that you can remember it later and spend more time listening and less time writing.

- If you find that it is hard for you to be fully present with the other person, feel free to ask yourself what your own feelings and needs are at the moment. You can use the lists for guidance ( and

- Take your time! Don’t rush things. Pauses and periods of silence can be very helpful in creating the space to fully reflect on one’s own experience.

Wrapping up

- Don't be attached to results – things are not supposed to look a certain way. Each group has its own unique flavor.

- When everybody has had a turn, do a brief go-around where people can say how they felt about the group, what they liked & didn't like.

- Ask to find out if there are any specific requests and agreements to make for the future to adjust these groups towards being more supportive for those who are there. "

What I would like to have is a group of people regularly supporting each-other in a daily health-oriented routine way like this. I like Rogers' idea of the group being a minimum number of seven people because that accounts for a few of the people possibly being up-set, judgmental, distracted, etc. and still have enough people present with sufficient skills to "catch" them through empathic understanding & care.

Given that this is a public service volunteer group that I am talking about here, through regularly giving & receiving this kind of support, those involved will then be ready to more effectively go help others.

But how do you do this? How do you effectively help others? Keeping in mind what I said earlier about community self-reliance – how do you effectively help others to help themselves, and not be dependant upon aid from the outside? In New Orleans I thought about this question a lot, since the phrases "rebuilding" and "reconstruction" were used frequently. What does it mean to "rebuild", outside of the material construction of housing?

I recently came upon a body of work called "Human Scale Development" originating from a man named Manfred Max-Neef. This man is from Chile, and his work originated from his experiences in Third World countries in Latin America, engaging in what he called "barefoot economics." I believe that this work provides some direction towards answering these questions.

Human Scale Development, like Nonviolent Communication, is based on the notion that all human behavior exists to meet some fundamental human needs that we all share. The strategies (or "satisfiers") that exist to meet these needs are infinite, and may or may not work. According to Max-Neef the fundamental human needs that people have are quite finite (nine in total) and he categorizes them as being:

1. subsistence
2. affection
3. understanding
4. participation
5. leisure
6. creation
7. identity
8. freedom
9. protection

Nonviolent Communication basically uses the same categories of nine basic needs, but uses some different words:

1. physical survival
2. nurturance
3. mental
4. social
5. celebration
6. self-expression
7. integrity
8. autonomy
9. spiritual

I would contend that "protection" is the equivalent to "spiritual", and that the difference just depends on whether you are viewing it from a mindset of scarcity or a mindset of abundance.

Manfred Max-Neef then takes these nine basic needs and looks at them from a lens of four different existential categories – Being (qualities), Having(things), Doing(actions), and Interacting(settings). He makes a grid using the fundamental human needs as one axis and the existential categories of being as the other axis. Different possible strategies (or "satisfiers") to meet these needs fall within the grid. Here is an example of what I am talking about.

This grid is then used as a possible tool. Here are some excerpts from the book "Human Scale Development: Conception, Application and Further Reflections" by Manfred Max-Neef. These excerpts explain some ways in which this is done:

"Applications of the Matrix

The schema proposed can be used for purposes of diagnosis, planning, assessment and evaluation. The matrix of needs and satisfiers may serve, at a preliminary stage, as a participative exercise of self-diagnosis for groups located within a local space. Through a process of regular dialogue - preferably with the presence of a facilitator acting as a catalyzing element - the group may gradually begin to characterize itself by filling in the corresponding squares.

The outcome of the exercise will enable the group to become aware of both its deprivations and potentialities. After diagnosing its current reality, it may repeat the exercise in propositional terms: that is, identifying which satisfiers would be required to fully meet the fundamental needs of the group. As the satisfiers are selected with increasing levels of specificity, they should be discussed critically by the group in terms of their characteristics and attributes, in order to determine if they are - or should be - generated exogenously or endogenously by the community itself. Such an analysis will demonstrate the potential capacity for self-reliance. The same analysis of proposed satisfiers will enable the group to assess not only whether their positive effects are singular or synergic, but also whether the negative effects are violators, inhibiting satisfiers or pseudo-satisfiers. The next stage of reflection of the group is to determine whether access exists to the necessary economic goods and material resources.

The proposed exercise has a twofold value. First, it makes it possible to identify at a local level a strategy for development aimed at the actualization of human needs. Second, it is an educational, creative and participatory exercise that brings about a state of deep critical awareness: that is to say, the method is in itself a generator of synergic effects. (More about this in the following section.)

The technique described is not restricted only to an analysis of local spaces. It is likewise applicable at regional and national levels. In local spaces, it can be a broad-based participation process where those representing the interest of the economic, political and social domains of the community may express their ideas.

At a regional level, the exercise should be undertaken by a carefully chosen team that not only represents the different domains of endeavor, but also by virtue of its representative nature combines both public and private interests. At the national level, it is essential that the task should be approached in a transdisciplinary manner because of the complexity of the issues. " - pages 37 & 38

A Note on Methodology

The Effort to Understand

Since the publication in 1986 of the Spanish version of Human Scale Development, considerable experience has been accumulated about the utilization of the matrix of needs and satisfiers(outlined in the preceding section) for analytical purposes, with diverse groups in different countries. The methodology developed so far has shown that it allows for the achievement of in-depth insight into key problems that impede the actualization of fundamental human needs in the society, community or institution being studied.

Starting from the assumption the author has developed elsewhere, it can be said that we know how to describe, and that we have learned to explain. However, what we often overlook is the fact that describing and explaining do not amount to understanding. The methodology developed so far may probably allow for that additional step into greater awareness.

For a simple yet comprehensive presentation of the methodology, we shall follow the steps of an imaginary two-day workshop attended by fifty people. The purpose of the exercise is to allow participants to reflect on the reality of their society at large in the light of Human Scale Development theory, in order to design ways of overcoming or coping with the most important problems detected.

Phase One. The group is divided into five sub-groups of ten people. (Experience has shown that ten seems to be an optimal size for the purpose.) The proposed task for each group is to construct the matrix containing the destructive elements (satisfiers) affecting their society - that is, all those "destroyers" that impede the actualization of the fundamental human needs. For the purpose, all groups receive thirty-six self-adhesive pads, numbered from 1 to 36, each presenting a blank grid of the matrix to be filled in.

Phase Two. For the first two hours, the groups are requested to concentrate on filling in the grids corresponding to the column of Being: that is, grids 1, 5, 9, 13, 17, 21, 25, 29 and 33. Each point entered in the grid must be the result of group discussion. It is stressed by the seminar coordinator that the column headed Being registers attributes, personal or collective (negative, in this case), that are expressed as nouns. For example, in grid 17, Participation, negative elements could be: authoritarianism, discrimination, indifference, etc.

Once the two hours are completed, all pads are collected and pinned on the wall, thus representing five columns of Being, at a sufficient distance from one another to allow space for the other three columns to be produced in order to complete the five matrixes,

The next two hours are devoted to filling in the grids of the column Having. Participants are reminded that the column Having registered institutions, norms, mechanisms, tools (not in a material sense), laws, etc. that can be expressed in one or more words. Again, examples that have shown up are: national security doctrine, repressive instititutions, discriminatory education laws, and so on. Once the time is completed, the pads are again collected and placed on the wall next to each of the corresponding previous five columns.

A break of three hours is taken, and the participants gather again in the afternoon. A long break is important because, if properly carried out, the exercise is very intense and demanding.

The next two hours are devoted in an analogous manner to the column Doing. It is stressed that Doing registers actions, personal or collective, that are expressed as verbs. As a mere illustration, examples could be discriminate, oppress, impose, censure.

During the final two hours, the column Interacting must be completed. It is explained to the participants that Interacting refers to locations or milleus in the sense of times and spaces.

The day finishes with five negative matrixes - matrixes of destruction - placed on the wall.

Phase Three. During the evening, a group of volunteers is requested to consolidate the five matrixes into one. The practical way of doing this is to take all five number 1 grids, eliminate all repetitions and synonyms and produce only one grid representative of the whole. The same is done with all the other grids until a single matrix is produced, representing the perceptions of all fifty participants. The matrix is drawn on a large chart (say, 120 by 80 cms) and placed on the wall so that on the following morning it can be examined by the participants.

Phase Four. In the next session, the participants are divided into nine groups; one for each fundamental human need. The matrix is cut with scissors into nine strips so that each group receives one part. It should be clear that each strip represents one need with its four grids filled in with the negative satisfiers.

The group is asked to start a discussion in order to select from each of the four grids the one element they consider to be the most important and decisive. In other words, that destroyer must be selected that carries the greatest weight in the lot. In exceptional cases, two can be selected from a grid. The selection must in each case be a consensus reached through debate and discussion. This phase should take as long as it requires.

Phase Five. Each group delivers the list of the four to eight negative satisfiers selected. The list is now written into a new blank matrix, which will be identified as the synthesis matrix. It represents the picture of the most negative elements affecting that society, community or institution (as perceived by the participants) inasmuch as the actualization of the fundamental human needs is concerned. It represents the paramount challenges that must be tackled. Therefore, the discussion and interpretation of the synthesis matrix must be carried out in a plenary session.

Phase Six. If time allows, or if the coordinator is able to establish a long-term relationship with the participants, an additional exercise is highly advisable. Employing exactly the same procedure as for the construction of the negative matrix, the participants are asked to produce a matrix of their Utopia; that is, of how their society ought to be for them to feel really satisfied. When carrying out this part of the exercise, the negative matrix should not be in the hands of the participants, since they might simply be tempted to fill in the new one just with the opposites of the earlier one.

Phase Seven. Once the second exercise is completed, the participants are confronted in a plenary sessions with both synthesis matrixes: the negative and the positive. What follows is a discussion about the bridging from one to the other. Here again small groups can be organized, the idea being a sort of game where the winning group finds the most synergic "bridging" satisfiers. Hence, each one that is proposed or suggested must be jointly analyzed in order to establish its characteristics. Is it endogenous or must it come from outside the community? Is it singular, linear, or synergic? Such a participatory discussion can turn out to be rich and stimulating and in itself represents an experience with synergic effects." – pages 39 – 42

This all presupposes that groups already exist through which to have these conversations within the community. Sometimes these groups do not exist, and there are only random conglomerations of strangers in public spaces. I have thought up a structure which could be used to try and stimulate such a meaningful conversation in public:

Creating authentic public conversation spaces

1. Seven people are required before-hand: two facilitators, four para-people, and one info person.

2. Clearly delineate the space somehow(markers, borders, decorations, etc.) so that people can easily discern that it is a special/unique space

3. People can enter & leave the space at any time. Being there is entirely by one's own free choice.

4. The space is distinctly marked with an information spot nearby that carries contact info & literature to explain the ideas behind the space more thoroughly

5. The space is arranged so that sound intrusions and distractions are minimized as much as possible

6. Political signs and slogans are kept away from the space.

7.The conversation space is arranged in a circle, with seating arrangements already available.


8. Multiple NVC-trained people take on the responsibility of watching the parameters of the space at all times

9. The para-people keep people from unknowingly wandering into the space, and thereby help to preserve the intentionality of the space

10. The para-people introduce/explain the intentions & assumptions of the space to those who wander in or pass by

11. The para-people answer questions and give empathy


12. The facilitators of the conversation circle are trained in NVC, Strategic Questioning and the Person-Centered Approach.

13. NVC is used to facilitate depth & self-awareness, the Person-Centered approach to help with real-ness & care, and Strategic Questioning to move things forward and provide direction.

14. Have at least two facilitators of the conversation - one to help pick up when the other gets disconnected.


15. Have a knowledgeable person staff the information spot with contact info & literature to explain the ideas behind the space more thoroughly.

16. Have border people and the information people continually invite people into the circle, to help there be people there engaged in the conversation.

17. The information person goes into more depth about the processes, the conversation facilitators are skilled at embodying the processes, and the border-watchers are a mixture of both with their answering of questions and giving of empathy. "

So, what else would I like to have my dream volunteer group do, besides facilitating amazing public community conversations? In short, whatever needs to be done. I would like to have this group operate out of a real spirit of service, honestly asking "what can we do to help?" while at the same time being self-connected and aware enough so that people wouldn't take on tasks out of guilt, a sense of obligation or habit, and would make sure that work was done in integrity with their values.

This vision of approaching people asking "what can I do to help?" is the complete inverse of what is usually expected when approached by strangers on the street. This is radical in that it is a sincere offering to contribute, heart-felt and honest. This implies a desire to listen and a willingness to trust.

The honesty part is important as well in terms of what the group has to offer. If people in the group do not have the knowledge, skills, resources, etc. needed in order to help out in a certain way, they would openly express that. They could still however be an extra pair of hands and work under the supervision/mentorship of someone who is more skilled & knowledgeable. Likewise, they can offer supervision/mentorship to others to learn the skills that they have. I agree with Carl Rogers when he says: "Learning of all kinds goes on best, lasts best, and tends to lead itself on more when it grows out of a real focus of interest in the learner." So the learning of new skills and the establishing of relationships of mentorship would hopefully have this in mind.

The list of fundamental human needs can be a useful tool to have on hand when approaching people to do service work. The needs list illuminates the fact that we have a whole array of different areas in our life that can be addressed constructively. We don't just have the needs for food & shelter, although these two needs are certainly vital. Through these dialogues which address the whole spectrum of human needs, new kinds of working relationships can be created.

The means used by this group to meet needs would be primarily low-cost or no-cost(ie, recycled or salvaged materials), Do-It-Yourself or making do with the resources at hand, and sharing & consultation with all present. The idea behind this is to help the individuals and communities at hand find real empowerment and to diminish as much as possible dependencies upon experts or outside institutions. Approaching things in this way would hopefully strengthen the qualities of resourcefulness, adaptiveness and creativity.

I envision the group living together in abandoned buildings. The intention behind this is to contribute to group cohesion, non-attachment to material things, and ease of logistical coordination by virtue of living together. Ideally the group would fix up whatever space they use and turn it over to someone(s) else when they move on.

I would like to also somehow convey something of the spirit behind which this group would operate under. Perhaps I could put it this way: The group would operate with an appreciation of fallibility, a presence for pain, a desire for partnership, and an offering of love. This would work on all levels – the personal, the inter-personal, the local community and the global. What we would be working towards is providing a practical tangible new way of being. A new way to bring about supportive accepting human closeness.

Beyond just big-sounding phrases or buzz-words, this is something that I would like for us to address directly through our actions. This is done within the group through regular evening "encounter" discussions & empathic listening groups and with the public through facilitating open community meetings. This is moved forward through asking each-other and the community directly – "What can I do to help?" This is given clarity & focus through the use of the list of fundamental human needs and the NVC understanding of clear do-able requests.

I understand that what I am wanting might be asking a lot from people, because part of what I want is a lot more discipline and a lot more commitment than what I or most people currently have in our lives. Through working closely together, though, this could be created. In essence, I want to be a part of a dedicated group of people who have sworn a commitment towards simultaneously improving themselves, connecting with each-other, and serving the public, and who adhere to a certain daily routine that brings focus towards having this come about.

Throughout all of this I see an underlying theme, motto or mission statement for this group being something like:

"We are all people in a process of learning. We are also offering a hand and are trying to be of service. We are in a process of both rebuilding ourselves as well as being a part of rebuilding this local community."

I believe that groups of people can either support each other towards improvement or support each other towards deterioration. I would like to have this be a group explicitly committed to the former. The mentality behind the group is "rebuilding ourselves as well as rebuilding the community", so the group is not seen as being separate from the community. I am hoping that whatever momentum towards positive development that comes from the group would also have its positive effects on the community. And likewise hopefully whatever positive momentum that is coming from other places in the community would be noticed by the group and be engaged with, supported, and drawn from.

All that I am writing about here regarding my ideal group, my dreams, etc. I am writing out of a desire to improve myself as well as others and the rest of the world. In other words, I am seeing my communication, my connectivity with others, my needs-based awareness, and my directly questioning & addressing needs as being areas that I want to personally grow and improve in my life. I am so convinced that this way of going about things is healthy and productive that I am proposing it not just to/for myself, but the whole world also.

I would like to move forward with turning this vision into a reality. A new program is currently in the process of being developed that is called "Facilitating Change: An Experiential Program on Nonviolent Communication for Organizational Development and Social Change". I am quite excited about this program, because it intends on offering activists and community organizers a kind of structured guided support in integrating NVC skills & consciousness into their work. The group that I envision would be heavily focused on using such skills – it will be the lens chosen to see humanity. I hope to work with this program as a way to help move forward this group project that I have discussed here. I am open to other means for developing this as well.

As Rogers indicated, I would need six other people with these skills and commitment in order to have the change that we are trying to undertake be grounded and sustainable. Who are these six other people going to be?

In Summary

A public service, personal & interpersonal connection-oriented, social change-focused, volunteer-based organization

1. Is volunteer & donation-based.

2. Group consists of at least seven people total, all trained in Nonviolent Communication and with a commitment to practicing it.

3. Determines public service projects by going directly to members of the local community, & dialoging directly - asking how we can work together to meet needs, & explain intentions.

4. Goes door-to-door, organizes public meetings, tables in public space, approaches people on the street to solicit input when having these conversations.

5. Is based on the needs list, asking: "How can we meet this need together, for everyone?" for each need (

6. Is based on personal transformation, interpersonal connection, and public service.

7. Group establishes relationships of mentorship for skills offered/needed. People’s focus of interest is the primary tool used to facilitate learning.

8. Group lives together communally in abandoned buildings. The building is fixed up and offered to others when the group moves on.

9. Daily rhythm: meditation -> movement exercises -> breakfast -> coordination meeting -> work -> dinner -> empathy/encounter group in the evening

10. Interpersonal and group problems & appreciations can be addressed in the evening meeting.

11. Group organizes & facilitates public space conversations for the public.

12. Focuses on areas of social/economic collapse, eg, Baltimore, Detroit, New Orleans.

13. Seeks low-cost/no-cost, D.I.Y., off-the-grid, cooperative, sharing-based ways of meeting needs.

14. Have an explicit attitude of: "We are fallible & in a process of learning. We are also offering a hand, and are trying to be of service. We are in a process of trying to rebuild ourselves as well as trying to be a part of rebuilding this local community."

Monday, January 7, 2008

Waking Up and Switch-Dreaming

Last night I had a night-mare. I, among hundreds, was in this massive concrete facility with armed guards, police, and soldiers everywhere. It was cold, with high walls, razor wire, angry guard dogs and people, armored vehicles and shadows & flood-lights. Thematically it was a mixture between Guantanamo Bay, OPP, and the movie Children of Men. Everyone was harsh, people were controlled, I was afraid - "What will happen next?" "What will they do next?"

People were getting hurt.

Every moment was terror.

I then realized at one point: "I am dreaming. I do not want this - wake up." There was a certain pull to keep on sleeping, to stay in the dream. It took effort - I was enchanted by the immaculate fear sequences. I chose to resist it.

I woke myself up.

Then these words came to me, I turned on the light, picked up my notebook & pen and wrote them down. They seemed important:

" Notice your thought-processes and trances that produce hopelessness & despair.

Develop your ability to stop, pause, and distance yourself enough to consciously choose to insert a new story in its place.

This new story is based on choice, meaning, inderdependence (this is a part of you), and care.

Have the new story form the basis of the new operating assumptions for your actions that you take.

After surveying the situation, pick key specific areas to take key specific actions.

Act out of care, show care. Ask questions. Say things to high-light care for all & our interdependent nature - "I see that a lot of us are wanting trust/respect right now and are making choices where people get hurt."

Point out the zeitgest that we are all under and feeling, but do so with care. Eventually point out the choices that we make to carry it on.

Multiple personality disorder is when you have more of an identification with the different parts within yourself and not with the internal collective identification that you call "I".

The kind of identification ("We", "I", fragmented self) that you have determines the kind of decisions that you make, the reasons that you have for making them, and subsequently, where your attention is placed.

Your identification can either scale-up or scale-down, but regardless of that, your attention can be placed anywhere.

Doris Lessing said: "I don't see ideas as being personal, they're collective experiences going on simultaneously. It is not 'my idea', rather, there is 'an idea that is around'". Based on this, look for others who hold the same idea, & more specifically, that carry the same idea onwards - 'the next piece'. "

Thursday, January 3, 2008

From the Finders to Lost and Beyond: A Reflection on 2007

I would like to talk some & reflect upon 2007. You are welcome to join me.

When I think about the year 2007, two things strike me the most. It is that I did a lot of traveling across the country in hopes of discovering a new way of life and "what to do with my life." The assumption was that if I figured out one, then the other would be easier to get as well. This isn't all that 2007 was about for me, of course, but this is what jumps out at me as being the lesson for me to learn for the year.

2007 began for me high & embittered & alone at a party at Twin Oaks Community. My experience at that party was not quite what I had wanted, and I ended up sleeping in the back seat of a van curled up in a fetal position to stay warm in the early hours of the morning.

The year exists within an incredible context - the fact that everything is going to hell. People everywhere tell me not to read the news, that I'd be happier that way. But I can not ignore the world that we live in. Everything is just so amazing. So the context is always on my mind, not out of wanting to overwhelm, but out of a desire for... Realism?

My first big journey of the year began in January to go to California to visit my romantic partner. Most of my time there was spent with her, and that really was my primary focus for that trip. That time there, and the relationship throughout the rest of the year, was characterized by a lot of caution, intensity, and pain. Vacillations between wonderful connection & agonizing disconnection.

Coming out of that relationship, I seriously question now how, or if, it is best for me to relate with the concept of "romantic relationships". My history with these things, when involved, is for me to put in far more time, energy and feeling than what in retrospect I think is healthy. I get consumed by them. In 2006 I went through a vasectomy operation so that I can guard against a possible situation where raising a child would be my (or someone else's) primary use of attention. Perhaps it would be wise for me to draw a similar clear-cut line against my involvement in romantic relationships? (what would the physical surgical equivalent be - castration?) Perhaps it would be best for me to put my attention onto other things?

After California, I went to Florida. This marked the beginning of a pattern for me. You see, when I say that I went "across the country", that is not really true. There are certain places that I went to again & again throughout the year. All in all, in 2007, I went to Mississippi & Michigan once, California & up-state New York twice, New York City, New Orleans and Florida three times each, and Virginia, Maryland and Washington DC countless times. The rest of the country was pretty much unseen by my eyes, or at most was a brief passing-through.

Why did I do all this travel? A lot of it was circumstance - so-and-so was going to such-and-such and I was invited to go along. A lot of it was event-oriented, a specific event was happening at a specific place and I was encouraged to attend. The rest of it was me drifting, just floating along following the strongest currents.

As I said earlier, I did a lot of my travel with an underlying theme of "searching" going on in my mind. Wanting to know what to do with my life & energy. Hoping that going to a certain place would reveal it to me, or that at the very least I would have a profound revelation along the way, at some airport, bus or gas station. Things never quite worked out that way, although I did find a lot of my experiences to be quite meaningful nonetheless.

One of the most powerful things to strike me this year is the sheer potential behind what I call "dispelling the illusions". By this, I mean what Nonviolent Communication calls "observation without evaluation or interpretation" or what others call E-Prime. In other words, being able to identify exactly what happened and not mixing that in with what we think about what happened, or any supposed meaning behind what happened. I have been talking about this principle for years, and am just now realizing how very little I have been applying it in my own life. This seems to me to be an un-used foot-hold to use to walk out of the cloud of incessant thinking, back into the world of tangible reality.

For the sake of transparency, most of my year when looking back at it from this lens without illusions, has been spent by me sitting down, reading, walking, talking - all-the-while thinking thoughts. That's what a camera would show. Well, I guess that a camera couldn't "show" the enormous role that thoughts have in my life, but that's how I experience it. To use an analytical term, I have been lost in a cloud of thoughts. The impetus behind these thoughts, generally-speaking, has been me wanting to find meaning & direction.

One thing that I have wanted to find meaning & direction with is regarding the issue of group identity. This year I made my own list of fundamental human needs(you can see the list here) and one of the needs that I listed there, in the "social" category, is "group identity". This is important.

Group identity, the story of who "we" are together, provides a sense of purpose & strengthened cohesion to a group. Groups sometimes go to war with each-other or persecute individuals when they sense that their group identity is threatened. For me, this has always been a very important need of mine, and much of 2007 was spent with me trying to find ways to meet that need.

Throughout the year I have had different experiences with different groups, resulting in this need not being met for me. With CapitolNVC there never fully evolved a story of "we" that everybody agreed to and felt good about, although people certainly did try! With the Finders we eventually discovered that the story that I wanted and the story that others had didn't exactly match up, even though there are some strong over-lapping similarities. The story that Common Ground tells I like a great deal, however the pain:processing ratio was not balanced enough within that group to have it be sustainable for me. I like the Baha'i story of "we" for humanity, but the story of what it means to be a Baha'i does not fit for me. Other groups that I have been involved in initiating have not sufficiently cohered, with enough subscribers and faith invested, for me to have this need met through it.

The romantic relationship thing that I was talking about earlier is a kind of group identity, I believe. It is a story of "us", of two. It is precisely the collective identification within this kind of relationship that I am questioning.

All of this aside, I also want to acknowledge that a great deal of pleasure, and pain, can be had from these group relationships regardless of identification. Heart-felt connection is the key. A strong group identity just adds a certain magical something special to it - the magic kiss that turns the living beautiful frog into the living beautiful prince. I got a great deal out of my relationships with my partner, the Finders, and then later Common Ground. It has been very hard and painful for me to have all of these different relationships end this year, or rather, transitioning-out-of-intimacy.

What I want is this - an intimate (not to be confused with sexual) relationship with a group of people, consciously committed to supporting each-other through pains & hardships, all subscribing to a story of "we", a group identity, that matches up with the meaning & purpose that I personally find in life. The meaning and purpose that I find important is grounded in values of sharing, respecting autonomy, and mutual care, while directly addressing the situation of the world. Using the mindset of "dispelling the illusions", I would have to translate what this would look like into terms of concrete doable actions. I have not found the mental stamina to do this yet.

One experience that had a big impact on me this year, that I am still trying to make sense of & orient myself around, was my time spent in New Orleans. Both my experience at Common Ground as well talking with different activists & organizers there, left me very shaken up by the real-life effects of violence & social disintegration. At Common Ground there were sexual assaults, fights waking me up in the middle of the night, open alcoholism, unexpected expulsions and a large bloody fight that happened among a large group of volunteers. In New Orleans itself outside of Common Ground, I knew people who were assaulted on the street, witnessed open gang warfare, locked away in jail for a month for no real reason, had their neighbors unexpectedly murdered in their own home, and who had their house torn down without their permission.

Within myself as well, in New Orleans I also felt myself disintegrate. I felt more anger there, more contempt, and more desire to commit physical violence than I have in a very long time. All my compassionate values, my Nonviolent Communication training, my Rogerian revolutionary aspirations, was not strong enough for me to embody it and bring it out into the world. In New Orleans, I felt as if I was living within a fractal reality of violence & disintegration. Within myself, a group of 30 people, a group of 274,000 people, and a group of 6.6 billion people, the same fundamental dynamics & patterns were playing themselves out simultaneously. I can not live like this. This experience more than anything re-affirmed for me the importance of having a conscious & committed social support structure.

Throughout the year I have met a few people through which I have found inspiration to continue pursuing the above-mentioned vision. I will name two.

On July 4th I met Dominic Barter in Oakland, California. This guy is a Nonviolent Communication trainer currently living in Brazil, originally from England. Dominic is well-known for developing & implementing a widely-used Restorative Justice process for the education & criminal justice ministries of Brazil. He is also an anarchist, was once a squatter, and has an interest in the work of Carl Rogers, similar to myself.

What I like about Dominic Barter, what I find to be personally meaningful, is the clarity through which he thinks and the fearlessness through which he acts. I like his beliefs & values, of course, but it seems as if he has somehow applied them in a way that so far I have only aspired to.

Dominic has a process that he calls "Walking in the Dark", which consists of identifying your fears and going towards them instead of habitually away from them. You identify whatever blocks that you have which keep you from doing that, and you address them. Then you find someone who has power in the situation that you are afraid of, and you have a direct conversation with them. You make clear doable requests of them, and you stay within an NVC-style dialogue. I would like to do this.

The other person is Lost. This is someone that I met in New Orleans, an ex-Common Ground volunteer, and someone who I interviewed for the "Just and Sustainable New Orleans" radio project. Lost is the founder and main person of the Termite & Vine: Home for Lost Girls & Boys", the "Re-Thinking the House" project, as well as a well-known advocate for "homesteading"(the term here referring to a more sophisticated version of squatting) in New Orleans.

I was struck - I had just come from the Finders, and here was "the home for Lost Girls & Boys". The sub-title of Dominic Barter's "Walking in the Dark" process is "Without Getting Lost", and here, was Lost. The name seemed fitting though, because all of New Orleans, including myself there, and especially the local anarchist scene, all seemed so very... Lost.

What I like about Lost, find inspiring, is the open-ended creativity that I see in her and her fearlessness. I mentioned "fearlessness" with both Dominic & Lost, so I guess that this is a big thing for me. Both of them have the ability to talk with bureaucrats & cops as well as criminals & drug addicts. They both can establish working relationships with people on the top & the bottom of the social hierarchy, and still remain true to their anarchist principles. With Lost I perceive a creative imagination that sees a million ways to express one's self, a million ways to potentially meet the need for housing, and a million ways to make things work.

There are two authors who made a big impact on me in 2007 - and these ones aren't dead guys for a change! They are Doris Lessing and Manfred Max-Neef. Lessing showed me that it is possible to think comprehensively about spirituality, sociology, and psychology and still express it in a poetic & compelling way. Max-Neef is the originator of the list of fundamental human needs that Nonviolent Communication is based upon, but he is not an NVC guy. He is concerned primarily with local community development in areas with very little monetary resources, and he is essentially anarchist. Now that really got me thinking...

2008 rolls around, and I am on the moon-lit sand dunes of Jacksonville Beach, Florida. The waves of the ocean are whispering behind me and the conversations of small groups are murmuring around me. The clock strikes midnight and loud electronic music starts thudding wildly in front of me, spark-blasters begin at full-force to my sides, and rockets take off into the sky behind me. I walk through the enormous iron gates into the rave of well-groomed yuppies.

So, then, where now? I don't know. I have a bunch of different options before me, and a bunch of different things that I can say. I don't know where I am going to live or what I am going to do. I don't want to buy into any of the pre-fabricated options before me, because that just wouldn't feel right. I feel as if I have all of the thousand puzzle pieces out on a table in front of me, and I don't want to just give up & buy a sleek pre-made print.

Dominic Barter says to have your requests be as clear & specific as driving directions. In order to write that out, I first need to consult the map, my heart. If there is any lesson that I can draw from 2007 it is that my own guide is within me. We just need to talk.