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.


memeticist said...

Hmm. Lots to say, not much time at the moment. I guess i am dissatisfied with the the first part of your answer, that everyone needs good health care. It reminds me of the old economist stuck on the desert island with can food and no way to get into it joke. "Assume you have a can opener". Where is this medical care coming from? Clearly we have to be organizing some aspect of it, because it is not being prepared by the state. How does this happen?

FOr me in my thoughts on new communities i am thinking that transparency groups are more important that Radical Honesty. With all due respect to Brad, RH does not feel memetic in the same way as transparency groups do. Nor do i want people to have to go to crazy expensive classes. For more on Transparency groups see

Aragorn! said...

I wanted to drop a line and say that I enjoy the fact that you spill so much (digital) ink on this (and related) topics but I feel like you give people WAY too much credit. I don't mean that people suck (existentially) but that the (social) ocean that most of us inhabit is far larger and more powerful than our individual will to resist it.

I don't blame individuals for their alienation (if that makes sense) or their inability to defeat it. I honor the rest of us for finding our way through it...

davichon said...


Loss: One part, which Ian does a great job on, is identifying causes and thinking about possible solutions. Another part might even be called non-negotiable negativity, which might be a definition of grieving.

As everything is ALSO social/political ("where's the health care gonna come from?") the challenge is distinguishing necessity from what's not, and in some cases earning knowledge that the distinction is not so clear:

Everyone dies, but drone attacks are (in)human choices and "collateral damage" is the language of those who cause loss and grief without taking responsibility. Suicides are much messier, and so usually more painfull.

But all loss (I believe -- I love the Buddha but won't take his guidance on this) is irreparable.

Here's my Q without an A: Without taking into account such "negativity", the intentions of an intentional community are corrupted. Part of us wants to believe we can simply start everything anew, from scratch, and avoid the mistakes of our predecessors.

Naw. There were mistakes, but also quandaries and toughshit choices that no one can ever resolve in the abstract or for all time. And about whichwe have to say we will try to do a better job, acknowledging that no one has done such a terrific job so far.

For stuff like suicide, community, love... structure and algorithms can help humans work things out -- they are not automated solutions.