The other day I had lunch with Michael Nenonen, a Vancouver social worker and freelance journalist (and a new friend). Michael has written a lot about the malaise of our modern culture and the damage it has done to us individually and collectively. One of the things we discussed was why, when there is plenty of evidence that physical and psychological abuse (in families, in the workplace, and in institutions) was at least as common in previous generations of our modern industrial civilization as it is today, the evidence of the trauma that abuse causes seems so much more visible today. Were previous generations just more stoic than ours in accepting this? Were they somehow more resilient, less affected by it than we are?
Michael’s view is that, in the first place, the damage done in previous generations was just as great — the extent of alcoholism, incarceration of the “mentally ill”, and the consequent abuse these previous generations have in turn inflicted on ours, all attest to that. The fact that it’s more visible today, he thinks, is due to the evolution of our society in recent generations from a “producer” society to a “consumer” society. My parents’ generation was expected to work hard and produce, and were assessed by their peers (and probably self-assessed as well) by how successful and effective they were at producing. There was considerably less tolerance for or consideration of behaviours of conspicuous consumption, or in fact any “weak”, unproductive, unexemplary or disobedient behaviour. One was expected to behave oneself, and, when one felt bad, buck it up, for the good of all.
By contrast, we are now judged largely by what we consume, and it is relatively unimportant how we came by the means to consume it (hard work, theft or inheritance). As a result, a much broader range of visible behaviour is tolerated, and responsibility for what we do and how we act has been substantially left to our discretion (or lack thereof). The “insane asylums” and hospitals for the poor have mostly been emptied and closed, their previous residents for the most part thrown into the streets. From schools to workplaces to religious observances, our culture has been socially deregulated, and the result is that our personal and collective trauma is on display, untreated (for better or worse), unconcealed and made our own personal responsibility. It is even, when sufficiently entertaining, celebrated, in an endless orgy of schadenfreude on Reality TV.
We are left to heal ourselves, and our homes and communities have now become the prisons and hospitals in which we seek to do it. Mental illness has become a huge and profitable industry for Big Pharma to exploit; giant pill-pushing corporations now relentlessly press us to “ask your doctor if X is right for you” (and challenge him or her if the answer is “no”).
I think Michael’s explanation is very plausible. I have my own theories (related to population stress and some unintended consequences of our adaptation to previous sudden climate change) about why abuse and trauma are so rampant in our modern civilization, despite our material affluence and knowledge. Whatever the causes of this epidemic, we have, for the most part, never coped with it well. Now that we are no longer socially obligated to work hard and believe and do what we’re told from cradle to grave, we are “free” to try to heal from all the damage this infectious violence-mad culture has unintentionally done to us.
Michael’s book From Terror to Love deconstructs the myths that we cling to and try to live by — that the world is inherently good and just, that violence can be redemptive, that we are progressing and the future will inevitably be better, that technology and innovation will solve everything, or that we will be saved by some magic or miracle of rapture or collective global consciousness. Michael and I agree that none of these myths is particularly sensible or useful, and belief in them is neither healthy no comforting. We both believe that the social and material disintegration of our civilization culture is now beyond halting or reforming.
So we talked instead about acceptance, about letting go of what cannot be fixed or undone, and about what that means for how we “are” in the world. In his book Michael describes an alternative myth/worldview he calls “the love myth… the only myth…that escapes nihilism‘s grasp, the only myth that can preserve our humanity in these waning days of our civilization”. He writes:
Only love, only the ability to perceive deep beauty within the world, within other people, within ourselves, the ability to commit ourselves to nurturing and protecting and celebrating others, only this can save us from despair, only this can redeem our dignity and salvage our courage. Love alone can free us from the terrors of the ego, from the all-consuming panic of self-preservation… Since the tribulations of the coming age will make monsters of all of us, let us try to become monsters of love, monsters at home among the ruins of dreams, in the wilderness of our broken civilization.
We concluded our discussion by exploring how one might make this practice of love and acceptance collective. For many of us, this attempt to reach a state of acceptance (and self-acceptance) is carried out through personal practices — meditation, yoga, martial arts, personal healing and self-therapy programs of one kind or another. Their principal goal, aside from self-healing, is, in Michael’s words, mindfulness. Close to what I have been calling (and seeking) presence. The idea, I suppose, is that once one becomes mindful, present, while on one’s own, one can then call on this mental state of alertness, awareness, acceptance, letting go, openness, etc. when in the company of others, and help ourselves and them and our whole society to function more effectively as a result.
But, I wondered, are there some collective mindfulness practices, some things that we can do purposefully together peer-to-peer-to-peer to help achieve and sustain this highly functional state? A highly functional collective state? How can we practice being better together?
There are of course mentoring and group therapies, group meditations, and collective techniques (e.g. Open Space) designed to help us do better together. And the Group Works card deck my colleagues and I have just produced is designed to help facilitators and participants in group deliberations achieve their intended goals more effectively. But I am not talking about ways of improving the productivity or effectiveness of groups. I am talking about ways of improving the collective mindfulness of groups. Not what they do or how they do it together, but how they are together.
I’ve been thinking and taking about this a lot since my meeting with Michael, and those I have spoken with have suggested the following possible Collective Mindfulness Practices:
- Ask open, interesting questions, and enable the group to explore them without expecting to find answers.
- Bohm/Bohmian Dialogue:
- “Bohm dialogue is a way of being together in a group. Twenty to forty participants sit in a circle, for a few hours during regular meetings, or for a few days in a workshop environment. This is done with no predefined purpose, no agenda, other than that of inquiring into the movement of thought, and exploring the process of ‘thinking together’ collectively. This activity can allow group participants to examine their preconceptions and prejudices, as well as to explore the more general movement of thought.” (Thanks to Seb Paquet for this link)
- Participants of such Dialogues (the etymological meaning of the word is ‘speaking among’ and the ‘dia-‘ means ‘across or among’ not ‘two’ as many think) are urged (a) to suspend judgements and expectations, (b) not to make any group decisions during or at the conclusion of the dialogue (the process is emergent), (c) to practice total honesty, openness and transparency, and (d) to build on rather than challenging or contradicting what has been said before.
- Rather than being action-oriented (although some users of the approach have coopted it for making decisions and agreeing upon actions), this approach seems to be all about increasing understanding of who we (collectively) are, and appreciation of how our thoughts align and differ, our worldviews and belief systems overlap and diverge, how our minds work, imagine and create, and how we “change” our minds.
- Karl Weick’s Simplicity Beyond Complexity Sense-making approach:
- Encourage unstructured conversations to enable shared meaning and understanding to emerge.
- Enable people to move beyond fixed self-identities, to learn about themselves and see themselves differently and more empowered, more flexible.
- Appreciate that we often act even before we “make up our minds” and then rationalize what we did, and facilitate a deep understanding of what actually underlies our actions and decisions.
- Encourage suspension of decisions and avoidance of confirmation bias (hearing what we want to hear and disregarding what doesn’t fit with our worldviews and beliefs).
- Help people understand that complex processes are dynamic and ongoing and that rigorous analysis, forecasts, predictions, causal certainty, defined goals, ends and mandates are inherently simplistic and unrealistic ways to deal with them.
- Dig deeper beyond what seems to make ‘perfect’ sense, with the knowledge that the truth is always more profound and complex than we can every fully understand.
- Iterate and try lots of “safe-fail” explorations and experiments to avoid being locked in to one way of thinking or one course of action.
- Make music, art, theatre, quilts, or barns together, improvisationally and cohesively.
- Nature walks, watching the sunrise/sunset/storm/stars, and similar unstructured shared observation and exploration experiences. By this I mean peaceful, silent, reflective activities, not White Mile character-building or cult indoctrination activities. I also don’t mean watching movies or theatre together — such activities, like reading (even while in each other’s arms), take our attention away from the others we attend with, instead of engaging us together as part of a larger whole.
- Playing together, either collaboratively or, if not, then without intense competition or keeping score. Role-playing games, cooperative board games, ultimate frisbee — it doesn’t really matter what you play.
- Eating together, without outside distractions.
Going back to Michael’s definition of the behaviour of people in love with each other and with the world: Can we say the above practices exhibit our collective “ability to perceive deep beauty within the world, within other people, within ourselves, the ability to commit ourselves to nurturing and protecting and celebrating others”? Question-posing, Dialogues, Sense-making, Improv, Shared Observation and Exploration, Play, Eating Together — are these really acts of collective love, mindfulness, attention?
The answer, I think, is that they usually are not, but they could be if they were practiced properly, mindfully. The challenge is that we have become so locked in to mind-less collective practices (especially in the workplace, and other hierarchies) that it would take a huge effort and great deal of patience for a group to relearn to do these things mindfully. Posing questions normally leads, Trivial Pursuit-style, to a competition to come up with the first correct or best answer. Dialogues we are familiar with are focused on reaching decisions on who will do what by when. Sense-making is too often a process for reassuring ourselves that what we already believed was right. Improv creativity, when it happens at all, can lead to ego wars and separation and individuation of tasks. Shared observation and exploration, and eating together, will generally cause some to “space out” and retreat inside their heads and others, unable to cope with the silence, to engage in banal conversations or actions (e.g. checking e-mail). Playing together very often leads to competition and even to violence.
We are just not very good at being mindful together, at just being together, attentive, perceptive, responsive, protective, nurturing, appreciative, relaxed and at peace in each others’ company. I can remember observing a group of dogs sitting on a hill at sunset a few years ago and they absolutely exemplified this collective mindfulness. I can’t remember seeing it in any human assemblage of more than two. If we hope to make a practice of this (and if we expect to be able to create cohesive communities to cope with the serious crises we will face in coming decades we will have to), we will need a lot of practice. To do so we will, I think, need to do five related things:
- Know and love and be comfortable with ourselves as individuals and as intimates with the others in the collective, to the point we can unequivocally consider ourselves a coherent ‘tribe‘. (thanks Venessa for outlining what this entails)
- Evolve a collective sense of ourselves as a collective. Not who we are made up of, not what we do, but what is our collective identity, the thing we are all a part of.
- Learn how to do nothing, how to just be still, in the moment, how to just be, alone and together. No nattering, no checking gadgets, no distractions. Eventually we can evolve to be fully present, and to facilitate others to just be, but to start it will be enough to just be relaxed, attentive, here, now, together.
- Learn to respect and love and trust those who are in our tribe who (for a variety of good reasons) we don’t particularly like or agree with. We are used to creating and belonging to groups uniquely made up of people we like and think like, and abandoning the groups when others we don’t like or think like get involved. This will be a hard habit to break.
- Relearn how to play. Riff off and build on what others in the tribe start. Overcome our modern society’s horrific imaginative poverty. Create our own entertainment. Have fun without manufactured products or rules. Smile more, laugh more, give more, try new things more, experiment more. Work is doing. Play is being.
Eventually we will get good at this, when our civilization culture crumbles and we no longer have any other choice. I’m wondering if I’m ready to let myself be adopted into one of the local ‘tribes’ here on Bowen Island. And wondering why I still find the idea so scary.
(Image above is one of 91 cards in the Group Works deck, developed jointly by more than two dozen experienced facilitators over 3 years to help facilitators and participants to design and enable better meetings, conferences and group collaborations. To learn more about the deck, or get your copy, please visit groupworksdeck.org . [Full disclosure: I am a member of the core team that developed the deck.])