Monday, January 30, 2012

"Don't mourn, organize"

In response to my last post my friend Paxus asked this:

"'Don't mourn, organize.' Okay so what is the fix? I think it is creating more intentional communities, both culturally and place based. Places which can deal with depression and other mental health problems, because they are culturally strong and because they are not economically destitute all the time.

(I)An-ok you have a massive intellect, what do you think is the key to creating more communities which are not just crash pads for drifters, but have some chance at filling the need for tribe and family that the mainstream has basically abandoned, except in its most sterile and insidious forms."

I wrote a reply to this, and I would like to share it with everybody here.


I appreciate you asking me these questions, and nudging me towards thinking more proactively as to what can be done to prevent these kinds of things from happening repeatedly. I agree with you about “creating more intentional communities, both culturally and place based”. But I think that more needs to be done than just that. I have a lot of specific details in mind as to what I think can help here.

My personal vantage-point with all of this is through the three people who ended up committing suicide whom I befriended, each of whom lived or were somehow connected with intentional communities that I was also a part of. With each of these situations there was a combination three factors taking place simultaneously:

1) They all had physical body ailments that they did not fully understand and were not getting sufficient treatment for.

2) There was a lack of stable consistent ongoing emotional support and empathic listening for them.


3) On their part there was a personal shyness and social anxiety which would keep them from reaching out and really getting to know others, or letting others know them.

Addressing each point, the first part would involve having a good reliable health care system in place where people are getting quality treatment for whatever their physical ailments may be. This treatment would also include an educational or informative component where the patient learns all that they need and want to know about their conditions, body and health. Treatable conditions going untreated, or people being in the dark about what’s going on for them, does not need to happen and these kind of things can really just eat people alive. I totally see there as being a mind-body connection at play. In the cases of the folks I saw, I do think that there were psycho-somatic stimuli for their physical conditions, as well as their physical conditions reinforcing the shitty stories that they were telling themselves as a part of their depression & despair. So good medical care and education would be the first part.

The second part, regarding emotional support and empathic listening, would first involve have a stable reliable structure in place where you have people that are sufficiently trained in things like Nonviolent Communication and Focusing, so that they can empathically listen to folks. These two practices are teachable and learnable modalities where people can learn how to do sensitive-yet-active empathic listening. Empathy is something specific and something that can and should be learned. And underlying this, is a genuine interest on the part of the listener of what the actual lived experience is for the person whom they are listening to. Empathy cannot take place if genuine interest is not there. You cannot just go through the motions of empathy, you really have to be there for it.

With people trained in practical empathic listening, there would then be structures in place for everybody to go to, at least once a week, to candidly talk with someone about whatever is on their heart and mind. In other words, I would like for everybody to trust that there is at least one place or group of people whom they can go to to just totally spill their guts and drop off all the emotional baggage that they have unknowingly been picking up and carrying around with them. I would say actually that the more people whom are trained in stuff like Nonviolent Communication and Focusing, and Vipassana Meditation too, the better and more solid basis you would have for everything. But at the very least I would like for there to be one core structure in place for everybody to go to receive good solid reliable empathic support on a regular basis.

And finally there is the third part, which has to do with people’s personal shyness and social anxiety. This is perhaps the most important part, and in fact if this is not actively dealt with this can interfere with the other two parts even being addressed, let alone fulfilled. In other words, one can be so shy or socially anxious that one would refuse to seek medical attention for a physical problem, or would decline to speak up about some personal emotional thing that is troubling them, even if it is haunting their every living moment.

This is where I see Carl Rogers“Person Centered Approach” as coming in, as well as the “Radical Honesty” of Brad Blanton whom you are more familiar with. Carl Rogers speaks about the importance of establishing real person to person relationships, real human contact. This means that the “therapist”, or the “facilitator”, or whatever you want to call the person who takes the action of initiating the deeper more intentional relationship puts special attention on being really authentic and congruent with whatever they are thinking and feeling, along with being warm and caring and nonjudgmental, as well as having the qualities of being empathic that I spoke about earlier.

The “Radical Honesty” part is important too, in that one just says what is on one’s mind, rather than having it being implied or sort of hanging in the air of the room unsaid. This is vitally important, because often people who use things like NVC, for example, try using a method like that to skirt around being really honest about what they are actually thinking and feeling. I much prefer the approach that has been described as “just get it out there, and then clean up the mess afterwards”. That “cleaning up” can be done by having the dance of dialogue which includes the empathy and the caring, as well as the deeper and more focused work of Focusing, for example.

I have done this myself with shy and socially anxious people, I know first-hand that this approach can work, I know that this can happen. In fact, with the three people in question here, the three folks who prompted all of this for me, I did that with them. They were shy, reserved, socially anxious, and I was able to get through to them, to connect with them. The key is consciously approaching them with empathy, personal authenticity and genuine caring for them. This most often took place in one-on-one interactions, when nobody else was there to potentially derail the interactions. These experiences also are what lead to the additional frustration for me personally, later on, when I told people that I had some real, wonderful, heart-to-heart conversations with them. People often had a hard time believing me, because these folks were just so generally shy, quiet and reserved that they could not imagine them any other way.

And, of course, those wonderful encounters, those totally awesome connections, was not enough to save these people’s lives. I would say that this was because I was by no means systematic about the whole thing. I did not establish any reliable structure for support, as in having regularity of such interactions, follow-ups on continuing threads, goals-setting, feed-back, assessments, and such things. My interactions with all of these folks was more or less random, haphazard, sometimes the deeper more personal more intentional thing, and sometimes totally superficial and trivial banter. What I am saying is that, even with the shy and socially anxious folks, I believe that a more deliberate, intentional, systematic and structured approach can be taken to help “get through to them”, instead of resigning them to their own personal hell inside their head. Therefore, gradually, work together with them can be done towards uncovering whatever is most important and meaningful for them to work with internally.

Ultimately, I think that all of this can and should be done as roles and structures existing within intentional communities and other such communal enterprises. This is important, especially for shy and.or depressed people, because even if you have amazing authentic and deep human contact experiences, if that all ends and the person is totally alone for all of the rest of the week, this can pretty much undo whatever productive work was accomplished in those sessions. Within an intentional community, this work can be done as a part of a “mental health team” or a “conflict resolution team”. The essential thing is that the folks who are acting in such roles are trained in and committed to using the skills that I mentioned here (NVC and Focusing, for the sake of empathic listening), and that the three principles of authenticity, empathy and unconditional caring are the three guiding lights in all that they do. I believe that these three lights, when held to, can help people to avoid whatever rigidity or stiltedness that could creep in by virtue of someone acting within a role in a social institution.

I really want to emphasize here, if I haven’t already, the absolute importance of having regularity, continuity and reliability of support here. This is so important. All three of the people I mentioned had support in all three areas that I mentioned – health-wise, emotional & empathy-wise and in the area of breaking through their shyness. The thing is, a one-time thing or sporadic occurrences is not enough. This support was not continuous and ongoing. Without that, they fell through the cracks. All that I’ve said here is a part of what I see as being necessary for weaving a kind of social fabric that is capable of really “holding” people in a supportive way. The income-sharing intentional community structure would be another aspect of the social fabric that supportively holds people as well.

You said that it is important to create more “communities which are not just crash pads for drifters, but have some chance at filling the need for tribe and family” – I think that this needs to be addressed head-on. For all three people, and all three communities in question, the phenomenon of having “drifters” come and go was very much the norm. I think that in all three places the communities generally wanted a more stable solid group of community members who stayed put, but the reality was that people would just drift in and out. I think that this needs to be addressed explicitly and directly in dialogue – have all the parties take the time to sit down with each-other and to honestly address the questions: “What will it take for you to make a real commitment to stay put and really invest yourself in this community?” as well as “What will it take for me to make a real commitment to you to support you in whatever ways that you need support and to really invest myself in my relationship with you?”

So this is another part right there – the issue of the sustainability of the relationships of all of the people such that they will all stay put and stick it out with each-other to have there be a lasting ongoing community of people together. This involves having open direct conversations with each-other, distinct and separate from the other conversations that I was talking about which would exist more for emotional support purposes. What I am referring to here are more clearing-the-air, putting-all-the-cards-on-the-table kinds of conversations so that everybody knows where everybody’s at as far as their various relationships with each-other. One group that I am a part of, the “Consciousness Transformation Community”, has these kinds of conversations take place once a month. Perhaps that would suffice for an intentional community as well.

What I was just referring to would be for community-wide conversations. For individuals or small groups of people who have conflicts or other stuff come up between them, I like Ganas Community’s rule of “No Non-negotiable Negativity”. That is, if you have some kind of negativity come up between you and someone else, you are committed to openly addressing it and actively working on it. I consider this to be a very important common agreement to make, because I know first-hand how negativity, judgment, anger, etc. can just poison a community, as well as interpersonal relationships, and one’s own sense of personal well-being as well! Negativity can be a poison that seeps in and ruins everything. So to counteract that, I would like for everyone to make an agreement right upon entering the community that they will work on their shit when (not if, but WHEN) it comes up.

To rekindle that sense of tribe and family that people are missing, I think that it is important for people to ask themselves – “what makes me come alive?”, “what helps me to feel closer and more connected with others?”, “what helps me to feel like I belong?” – and then actively take steps, create action-plans even, based on the answers that come up for them through these inquiries. Through purposefully discovering your own authentic self, together with others, the ground-work is laid to then have the conversation about how to live authentically with others who are doing the same. Step-by-step it would be a kind of re-creating of tribe, or family, but in a way that actually works for the people involved.

Looking back at what I wrote here, it seems as if what I am advocating is conversation after conversation after conversation. Well, that’s true, but all of it must be done intentionally. Intentional conversations for and within intentional communities. I think that after a while, after people have been habituated to it and it settles in as a cultural norm, the specific formats and structures of these conversations will cease to be such a big thing, and the general attitude and “consciousness” behind the whole thing will permeate people’s lives in general. That kind of environment of casual free-flowing connection is so totally different from the world that we live in, so very different from the background context of those whom I mentioned lived in. I am awe-struck by the disparity between the two.

These are my ideas, for a start. There is certainly more that can be said about everything. Feel free to ask me more questions. I would love to develop these ideas further.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

"In a world full of no ones, I am a someone"

A couple of days ago I found out that a good friend of mine died, probably by suicide, but I’m waiting for the police report to arrive before that is confirmed. This is news to me, and for a number of other people who knew him and were friends/friendly with him. But the actual death happened about three years ago. To me this is the kind of silence that says a lot.

His name was Mario, and I lived with him in two different intentional communities, and we both volunteered in post-Katrina New Orleans at the same time as well. He originally knew about me from my anarchist writings on the internet and in radical publications before we even met. It was only when we were first living together and he saw how my name was spelled that he realized that I was the same guy whose writings he read. We had many different interests, values and ideals in common, and he was one of the folks whom I wanted to create a wonderful new utopian community with together, but it never quite happened.

Mario was a very shy person, admittedly socially awkward, and as a result of that he was pretty chronically quite lonely and longing for social connection, friendship and romantic relationship. His great fear was social isolation, and that much-feared result very often was a part of his day-to-day reality. However, he was quite personable, quite friendly, quite knowledgeable and he opened up quite readily to me. He held an ideal for a kind of drop-out crusty-squatter way of life, along with a desire for authentic spiritual experience and authentic interpersonal connection, anarchist social revolution, communal living and the kind of tribal social structures that I wanted as well.

The reality was that we drifted in and out of each-other’s lives, and the kind of engaged constructive work of building what we wanted to see in the world kept on getting deferred to some vague distant future. Eventually we parted ways, he ended up traveling cross-country to various places, and I started traveling cross-country to various places too. We never met up again, although we did stay in touch somewhat via e-mail. He started talking about increasing health problems, as well as depression. His health deteriorated to the point that he could not do much, so he took refuge at the home of his one parent that he was in contact with, and stayed there. He was quite socially isolated there, a crippled radical anarchist in the middle of a small town in Kansas. He began to despair that he would ever get better emotionally or physically. I don’t know what happened after that, but eventually he died, in May 2009.

None of the deaths that I have experienced before has ever felt as disconnected as this one. He died in a place where hardly anyone knew him or could grieve his loss together, I am in a place where nobody around me knew him and can grieve with me, and everybody I know who knew him is living in a different geographical place. That, and it has been years since any of us had any contact with him, and years since he died as well. This whole situation is like a picture-perfect example of social fragmentation.

I look back at this story and I feel quite angry. I feel angry because I feel quite certain that if he had a strong, supportive and loving community surrounding him, that this would not have happened. I am convinced that things do not have to be this way. If he did kill himself then that would mean that I have now had three close friends/coworkers in my life who have killed themselves. Each time, I speak the rhetoric of community, emotional health and personal growth, and each time these people feel increasingly estranged, despairing and completely powerless about their personal circumstances.

I do recognize that suicide and the choices that one takes to get to that point are all a matter of individual responsibility ultimately in the hands of the person who takes that action. However, I do not see the matter as being entirely about that. I see our human reality as being inextricably a kind of social fabric in which we are inter-related and connected with each-other, for better or worse, like it or not. We all make choices in relation to one-another to help or to ignore, to listen to or to write off, to engage with or to mind your own business. All too often I believe that we all, including myself, make the later of these choices.

And here’s the clincher – this is happening everywhere. It’s not just Mario, it’s not just the other people in my life who have committed suicide, it’s people all over the place. Just because I do not know personally all of the different people who have, or are, or are considering right now committing suicide does not make it any less important. Joseph Stalin is reputed to have said that “one person dying is a tragedy, many people dying is a statistic.” I believe that suicide, and the isolation, the despair, the lack of meaningful social contact that is underlying it endemic to the world that we live in, to the kind of society and social organization that we participate in, and that ultimately we each need to take personal responsibility for this happening just as much as each individual takes responsibility for deciding to kill themselves.

To me, the kind of profound social isolation and disconnection that Mario lived in, which is also reflected in the way that so many people in our society live their lives, is completely and totally unsustainable. People need connection, community, belonging and care. Without that, suicide, homicide, and any number of other horrible things, is just a matter of time before it happens.

I don’t want your sympathy. I don’t want to hear any condolences, any “I’m so sorry for your loss”, because ultimately this loss is not my loss – it is our loss. Even if you did not know the guy, this has affected you, the underlying social condition affects the context that you live in, and you helped to make it happen. We’re all in this thing together. Let’s start acting like it.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Middle Way

So often in my life I have felt like an extremist. I have continually been drawn to the most radical views, the most fringe life-styles, and I have cherished the most extreme experiences. As a child I felt inside like I was extremely weird and different from everybody else. As an adult I have somewhat consciously longed for the most extreme results for the future of humanity. In many ways all of this is still the case for me. At the same time I am having a dawning appreciation for something else – balance.

“Buddhism” can mean many different things to many different people, but one key idea in it is that of “The Middle Way”. This idea got started as being about the “middle way” between hedonism and asceticism, indulgence and denial. But this can also be interpreted as being about the “middle way” between nihilism and absolutism, atheism and theism. This interpretation is one that has particular resonance for me right now.

A lot of the time my view-points tend to fall into the extremes of nihilism or absolutism, despite my conscious wishes to the contrary. “Everything is shit”, especially everything that we see in this world – nihilism. Or, “here is The Answer”, and over the years I have posed so many things as being that – absolutism. Back and forth, back and forth I’ve gone, sometimes reflecting a kind of internal mood swing in the process. At times I’ve also seen anarchism as by necessity incorporating these two elements, as being a kind of marriage of nihilism and absolutism. I don’t think that that approach really works, at the very least it is sort of crazy-making, but more than that there are other approaches out there.

A “middle way”, or balance, can be an integration of the two in the sense that it recognizes and acknowledges the best aspects of both. When something is destructive, it is seen as such, no need to deny it. When something helps with health and well-being, then that is acknowledged as well. There is no need to find fault with everything, nor is there a need to find the bright side of everything. Although both faults and bright sides do exist, when they exist, and that is recognized. An approach of balance would then be based on a profound acceptance of what is. There is no need for rose-colored glasses, or dark-tinted glasses either.

This is definitely an area where it is far easier to talk about it than to actually practice it. As I write these words even, I see within myself a desire to put up “The Middle Way” as being “The Answer”, my old absolutest approach. Swirling around this are my critiques of all that’s surrounding, something that can very well lead to an “everything is shit” conclusion, my old nihilist friend. I am so used to either trying to recruit everybody to The Righteous Cause For a Better Tomorrow, or to rain on their parade and dynamite their hopes & dreams. The radical notion for me then is to do neither, or aspects of both. There is nothing to be recruited to but there are better ways to live. There are flaws and draw-backs to everything, but not to the point of everything being worthless.

Perhaps the most difficult thing to grasp, or at least one of them, is that there are no beliefs that can console you. Nothing can really comfort you, for it is all an illusion in the end. This is one of the great back-handed gifts of nihilism. This sentiment is best expressed by this poetic phrase by Vasily Rozanov:

"The show is over. The audience get up to leave their seats. Time to collect their coats and go home. They turn round...No more coats and no more home."

Conversely, the Buddha is claimed to have said:

“Make an island of yourself, make yourself your refuge; there is no other refuge. Make truth your island, make truth your refuge; there is no other refuge.”

In other words, stark reality is to be faced, point-blank, as it is. It is not to be denied, nor is it to be all puffed up with some grand theory of something-or-other. Perhaps it is not as bad as one makes it out to be, perhaps "making it out to be" anything is actually part of the problem. Straight down the middle, with no hiding from it or craving for something else, a balance can be found. That is the middle way.