Friday, April 30, 2010


When I wrote my post on Evolving My Spirituality (3/5/10), I mentioned that I felt like my spirituality had four sources: Love, Community, Nature, and the Earth. Later, in my post on Second Thoughts (4/14/10), I said that I wanted to add Mystery to my spiritual sources and would write a post about Mystery in the future. This is it.

However, it's not like Mystery is something new to my spirituality. I can remember as a teenager, looking up at the endless blue sky or the star-filled night sky or immense ocean, and realizing how small I was and how big the universe is. These were some of my earliest spiritual experiences. Yes, some of this was about Nature and that's why I include Nature in my spiritual sources--but the wonder involved is more than about just Nature. For me it was about realizing that we will never fully understand the universe.

The book of Job ends with Job questioning God and God, in turn, questioning Job--asking where are the foundations of the earth (or the universe, for that matter), and where are the springs of the sea? Where does the light and darkness come from? What controls the stars? Who feeds the lions and the ravens?

Scientists are now working on answering some of these questions, but each answer opens up new questions. Who feeds the lions and the ravens, for example, opens up all the questions about how ecosystems work. (See my post on Systems, 12/14/09, for more thoughts about this.) Sure, we can say that this all evolved, but how does that work? Many scientists would argue it all happened by chance--and even that is marvelous and mysterious. But contemporary complexity theorists (see my posts on Complexity Theory, 7/16/08, and At Home in the Universe, 1/29/10) now believe that there is an implicit order in things that helps systems like this emerge out of the chaos, a phenomena of 'self-organization'. They would say that the world is evolving, but there is direction in that evolution--although we have no idea how that happened.

Or take the whole beginning of the universe (it's foundation, if you will). Sure, it seems likely it came out of the big bang, and scientists can describe what happened up to trillionths of a second after the big bang occurred, but I think that most admit that they cannot describe or even guess what happened at the actual occurrence--much less what gave rise to the big bang. What we are left with is mystery.

There are many who would name that Mystery as God. I'm not ready to go there.

Someone that I lived with several years ago had a sign in his room that said: "Radical Agnostic: I don't know and you don't either". I'm not even ready to be that definitive. I am very concerned with 'hubris', in this case the idea that we can know it all. I don't even think I can know that you don't know. My version of the sign would be "I don't know and I suspect that you don't either". But who am I to be definitive? Who am I to say that you don't know? All I know is that I don't know--and that Mystery, that not knowing and perhaps not even being able to know, is at the core of my spirituality.

Years ago, I attended a talk by Stephen Levine. He was discussing death and dying and mentioned spirituality. Someone asked him what his definition of spirituality was. He said something to the effect that spirituality was openness to the Unknown.

That has been my definition of spirituality since.

Quote of the Day: "...everything is meaningful even if in a sense beyond our understanding..." - Dorothy Thompson

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Going to the Balcony

I will admit it. I'm a very reactive person. I'm calm around calm people and anxious around anxious people. When I get hit by a blast of emotion from someone, I react. I'm not sure how not to, but that is what I am working on now.

Stephen Covey's first habit in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is to 'Be Proactive'. (For more on this, see my post of 2/19/10, on 'Deciding'.) He talks quite a bit about the difference between reactive and proactive people. But perhaps his most important point is "Between stimulus and response is our greatest power--the freedom to choose."

But this means that you need to stop between the stimulus and the response--not just immediately react. Pema Chödrön points out (in the book When Things Fall Apart) that "...there is something between the arising of the craving--or the aggression or the loneliness or whatever it might be--and whatever action we take as a result. There is something in us that we don't want to experience, and we never do experience, because we are so quick to act." She makes it clear (as do other teachers) that meditation is one way to stop the reaction, to expand that gap between the stimulus and the response, and pay attention to what is there. That gives us enormous freedom to decide how we want to act.

I recently started reading the book, Getting Past No, by William Ury. I haven't gotten very far, and it will be quite a while before I review any of it, but I noticed he claimed that there were five common barriers that interfered with cooperation and the first one he labeled, "Your reaction". His strategy for dealing with this is: "Since the first barrier is your natural reaction, the first step involves suspending that reaction. To engage in joint problem solving, you need to regain your mental balance. A useful image for gaining perspective on the situation is to imagine yourself standing on a balcony looking down..." Naturally he calls this strategy 'Go to the Balcony'.

I think this is a useful image for any reactive situation. When you can gain perspective, you can make decisions out of clear thinking rather than simple reaction. You have a chance to be proactive. Sitting there looking at your reactions during meditation, or in counseling or therapy, can be one way to get that perspective. Just taking a time out when you find yourself reacting can be another. Either way, the point is to change our habitual behavior, to change the way that we respond to situations.

What does all this have to do with social change? I think that too often our social change strategy is just reaction. We react to capitalism, we react to oppression, we react to climate change, peak oil, social inequities, the military-industrial complex, the corporations, the government, the system, etc. We react to whatever the situation is. I sometimes think these crises are designed to keep us in reaction mode. This isn't a strategy. Here's a clear example of where we need to 'Go to the Balcony' and take in the whole situation, and try to figure things out from there. Going to the Balcony gives us a chance to strategize rather than react.

As I have noted before, this is another example where a similar process is useful for both personal and social change. The less we react, the more we open that space between the stimulus and the response, the more we are able to Go to the Balcony, then that will enable us to think clearly, make good decisions, and be proactive. It will allow us to be in the world how we want to be and not to be defined by the situation.

Quote of the Day: "Because of mindfulness, we see things when they arise. Because of our understanding, we don't buy into the chain reaction that makes things grow from minute to expansive. We leave things minute. They stay tiny. They don't keep expanding into World War III or domestic violence. It all comes from learning to pause for a moment, learning not to just impulsively do the same thing again and again. It's a transformative experience to simply pause instead of immediately filling up space. By waiting, we begin to connect with fundamental restlessness as well as fundamental spaciousness.
"... Part of being awake is slowing down enough to notice what we say and do. The more we witness our emotional chain reactions and understand how they work, the easier it is to refrain. It becomes a way of life to stay awake, slow down, and notice." - Pema Chödrön

Friday, April 23, 2010

Social Change as Healing/Healing as Social Change

An online dictionary defines Healing as "To restore to health or soundness; To set right; repair; To restore (a person) to spiritual wholeness. [Also:] To become whole and sound;" Wikipedia claims: "Physiological healing is the restoration of damaged living tissue to normal function. It is the process by which the cells in the body regenerate and repair..."

What does all this have to do with social change? Years ago, I thought of my self as a revolutionary, someone who believed that what we needed was a revolution. The trouble with revolutions (and this has now been shown several times) is that they tend to replicate the structure they were replacing, only with a change of people. If you keep an animal caged for a long time, they will often stay in the cage when the door is opened. It's familiar to them. (I've heard the same from former prisoners--in some ways they want to return to prison, it's what they've learned as normal.)

We need a total structural change of society, and it needs to be built from the ground up. But it needs to be an organic, natural process or it won't take. Capitalism and industrialism, for all their destruction, appeal to people on a visceral level. They appeal to fear and greed, but this is more successful than an appeal to reason and logic.

What we need to realize is that people have been hurt. The natural world has been hurt. If we are going to change things we are going to need to do it by healing those hurts. I think these days about transformation. I think about evolving new systems that will appeal to people because they will be generous, and fun, and challenging (not to mention sustainable and connected). These systems also need to be healing. Any change that is going to be sustainable has to take into account the many wounds and wounded people in the world. We need to find a way to care for them. We need to restore them to health.

I like the word healing, because it speaks to social change as an organic process, as opposed to fixing something. You fix a pot that is broken, but when a bone breaks you try to create a situation that will allow it to heal itself. I think that society (not to mention the natural world) is a living system that has to be nurtured and supported as it changes. We need to restore and repair society, to make it healthy again, to set it right, to bring it back to wholeness, to regenerate and repair and restore damaged living systems to full, flexible functioning, to resiliency. I have talked about the 'Healing of the World' (see my post on 'The Four Offspring', 2/24/10). This is how I see social change. I see social change as a way to heal the world and its people; and I see supporting healing (of individuals, of society, of natural systems, of the planet) as a process that will support social change.

Quote of the Day: "Healing yourself is connected with healing others." - Yoko Ono

Monday, April 19, 2010

Personal Growth and Social Change

During the late sixties/early seventies, I was into social change, at least peripherally. Later in the seventies, I became involved in humanistic psychology and the 'Human Potential Movement'. When the eighties came, I saw this as a time with the potential to fuse the personal and the political, to combine individual and social change. (Yes, I was disappointed.) In the nineties I was an important part of three attempts at building community based on personal growth, social change, and spiritual diversity.

Why do I see personal growth and social change as connected? One reason is that I saw too many organizers from the sixties that hadn't dealt with their own stuff, who ended up alienating people rather than inspiring them. I still see that, unfortunately. On the other hand, there are also people who believe that you can only change yourself, or that you have to get yourself totally together (an impossible project) before attempting to change society.

For me, personal and social change are inter-connected. There were political groups that I found in the seventies and eighties that got that. Movement for a New Society, a political group that I became involved with during the early eighties, saw personal growth as a part of its social change strategy. (For example, in the book Resource Manual for a Living Revolution, by Virginia Coover, Ellen Deacon, Charles Esser, and Christopher Moore, the authors point out that "A successful program for change depends on the self-discipline of its members, including their courage, patience, persistence, and skill level. The loving support of others provides the environment in which growth on a personal level takes place, but each of us is ultimately responsible for how and in what areas that growth proceeds." But they also point out earlier in the book that social change doesn't happen directly through personal change, and cite Charles Reich's The Greening of America as an example of that fallacy.) Another group that saw the connection was the National Organization for an American Revolution, a multi-cultural group founded in the seventies by James Boggs and Grace Lee Boggs. One of the many pamphlets published by the organization is entitled "Change Yourself to Change the World".

In many ways, personal and social change have to happen together. We try to do work on the world, and we run into our own short comings. But as we work on ourselves, we become more and more aware, and one of the things we become aware of is all the things that need to change in this society. So it becomes a back and forth process--we work on the world and the world works on us. We work on ourselves, to prepare for our next engagement with the world.

Right now, having come up against my stuff, I am doing a lot of work on myself (thus so many postings on personal growth). Most of this is because I am readying myself to do more work in the world. I realize that if I want to build community and support social change, I will be the instrument doing this work--and I want to try to be the best that I can. But I also realize that I will never be free from stuff, that I need to plunge back into the fray, as flawed and imperfect as I am. I am looking for others to work with, because I think that together we can increase our impact. But as I work with others, their stuff and my stuff often collides. What I am learning is that I can't do much about their stuff (other than encouraging them to work on it and supporting that work). But I can continue to work on my stuff and model the change that I want to see.

Quote of the Day: "Of course, even when you ... posit a fundamental separation between liberation of self and transformation of society, you can still feel a compassionate impulse to help its suffering beings. In that case you tend to view the personal and the political in a sequential fashion. 'I'll get enlightened first, and then I'll engage in social action.' Those who are not engaged in spiritual pursuits put it differently: 'I'll get my head straight first, I'll get psychoanalyzed, I'll overcome my inhibitions or neuroses or my hangups ... and then I'll wade into the fray.' Presupposing that world and self are essentially separate, they imagine they can heal one before healing the other. ...
"It is my experience that the world itself has a role to play in our liberation. Its very pressures, pains, and risks can wake us up--release us from the bonds of ego and guide us home to our vast, true nature. For some of us our love for the world is so passionate that we cannot ask it to wait until we are enlightened." - Joanna Macy

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Second Thoughts

This isn't one of the posts that I was planning to write. (See my last post, 'Step Back and Look Ahead', for more.) But a couple of things happened.

The first is simple. I was trying so hard to get a post out, I put it up before I realized there were a couple of other things I wanted to include.

I realized that a few of the things that I put in recent posts, I've rethought. No big changes, just a little tweaking. In fact, much of what I do day to day, I tweak regularly. For example, if I was writing the post 'And Their Four Offspring' (2/24/10) now, I would probably make the offspring, Kindness, Patience, Forgiveness, and Generosity--I see Healing as something that comes out of the practice of these virtues, an emergent property, if you will. I am planning to write an upcoming post on Healing and Social Change. I would also add Mystery to the sources of my spirituality (see the post Evolving My Spirituality, 3/5/10). And, yes, I plan to write a future post on Mystery.

However, the bigger reason I am writing this, is an abrupt shift in what I am doing. I am still (perpetually) seeking community. Recently I gave notice at my house (see my last post) and started to look for an apartment to have to create a small, 'proto-community'. I wasn't very successful at this. The final blow was when I real estate agent informed me that I would need to have housemates to finalize a deal with a landlord (who would want to meet all these people). I realized that I needed the place in order to advertise for the people but it seemed like I needed the people in order to secure the place. The agent said it wouldn't be a problem if it was only going to take a couple of days to find the people--the problem was I expected to take a month finding them. I know how long housemate searches take, and I expected mine to take even longer since I was starting from scratch. Leaving the agency, I realized what was feeling wrong. I have never done this by myself before, and it stopped making sense. I had said that I didn't want this to be 'my community' but here I was doing it alone. This wasn't how I wanted to build community.

I went back to my house and asked if I could retract my notice. At this point the others had one interview with someone they liked (but who wasn't urgent about moving) and were preparing to have dinner with the person in hopes this could be a simple process. I was embarrassed and worried that my housemates would be annoyed. Instead, the first one I spoke with said she was relieved, a second said he was very happy and gave me a big hug, and the third sent me an email entitled 'Welcome Back' and said she was 'Dee-lighted' with my decision. My friends have been supportive and also relieved. I am still embarrassed but I think that it was the right decision. Everyone (including my housemates) is clear that I do plan to try to do this again in the future, but first, I plan to find at least one person (maybe more) to begin doing this with. I've always said that you can't build community by yourself--the biggest need in community is people. Yet, this time I had to be hit in the face with it.

When I ask one of my housemates why something-or-other didn't happen, she often replies "It's an evolving situation". This is life. I am trying to do a bunch of things and learning along the way. Sometimes I have second thoughts. Hey, "It's an evolving situation."

Quote of the Day: "All is flux; nothing stays still." - Heraclitus

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Step Back and Look Ahead

This is a busy time for me. I've given notice at the house where I live. It's sort of jumping without a parachute. I don't have a place to live and I don't have people to live with. I could be in trouble.

The goal is to build a simple, sustainable community that mirrors the world that I want to see happen. I have lived in community before so I do know that it's possible. Also, there must be some other people who also think that this is worthwhile. I don't think that I am putting out anything that unusual.

But, the first step is finding a place and that's where I am stuck. I thought that the Cambridge neighborhood where I know some other people living in a simple and sustainable manner would be perfect. It turns out that: a) there aren't many four bedroom apartments there, and b) most apartments available (even three bedrooms) are way too expensive. How can I advertise for people interested in simple living and offer a place that charges a bundle for rent? So I am trying to extend my search.

Plus work has been busier than usual, so I haven't had a lot of time to write posts. I have a bunch of them in mind, so when things slow down (at work or in my life) I will start rolling them out.

One thing that I am aware of is that I have been more inwardly focused in my blog lately--doing a lot of posts on spirituality and personal growth. I do intend to address this in an upcoming post. And I also have more posts planned of this nature--it speaks to what I am currently struggling with.

Another hope of mine is to put out another, and perhaps final, issue of my zine this summer. I want to get the information I researched and wrote about regarding 'Real Needs' out in paper copy.

And at some point I plan to write a post about this attempt at community building--but first I have to see how it all works out. This could be the start of something worthwhile or it may be a disaster in the making. I will let you know.

Quote of the Day: "Your daily life is your temple and your religion." - Kahlil Gibran