A friend asked me to check out this Collective Wisdom Initiative website, so for the past couple of days I have been reading it, in bits and pieces. As she so understatedly said, “There is a lot of material here.” I have a lot more to explore, if I choose to, and some time I probably will.
I want to respond to (my interpretation of) what I’ve read here, instead of sending long emails to a few people, which might be seen as personally meant when they’re not; these comments are about me — they’re my response, my experience, my beliefs, etc., all subject to change any minute now.
There is so much material here, too much for me to synthesise now, so I will comment on the bits and pieces I’ve explored that speak to me.
I think I have a vague sense of the overarching theme, something like “collective wisdom comes from truth and leads us to truth.” Perhaps? I like some of the basic elements of: Seeking the Edge, Invoking the Daimon, Blessing and Invocation, Beauty, and Wholeness. They all speak to me deeply, as I interpret them.
The fundamental (I think?) belief that “Together we know more” (from ‘What is Collective Wisdom?’) doesn’t resonate for me or excite me. My experience is that “the wisdom of crowds” is powerful, and often in destructive ways. Maybe, though, the principles discussed at this website can keep the group more wise than complicit.
This quote that I came across this week (by someone I heard speak about ethics at a conference years ago) expresses my wariness: “Neither the intensity of your feelings nor the certainty of your convictions is any assurance that you are right.” –Michael Josephson
I think this is as true in groups as in individuals. Groups may help individuals to discern, and they may also rafity, enforce, and increase individuals’ certainty and intensity.
BITS & PIECES #1: A Circle of People to Talk with and Listen to
I like the initial quote on the home page:
“Few needs are as pressing and as often go unmet in our world as the need for a place to converse. We all require somewhere, some circle of companions, where and with whom we can enter into the demanding task of trying to say what we experience and to understand what others say in response.” — Michael J Himes, Doing the Truth in Love: Conversations about God, Relationships, and Service
I have almost never found this circle or place in the physical world. (Have others?)
I’ve been part of many small groups and what feel like meaningful conversations — lots of nominal “places to converse” and “circles of companions” — but I rarely feel I can meaningfully talk with others about my deepest experience. That depth — the stuff that really matters most to me (which is what this website seems concerned with, yay) — just feels nebulous, inchoate, a swirl, something shimmering.
I’m watching Ingmar Bergman talking about making (writing, directing, editing, etc.) the film Winter Light — it’s a 145-minute documentary, Ingmar Bergman Makes A Movie, included in the trilogy boxed set, in which none of the films is more than 91 minutes long! — and talking about his ideas of God and so on; and he is talking to the interviewer about what matters to him, at some length, in such a thoughtful, serious, integrated, eloquent, whole and often light-hearted (perhaps mildly self-mocking) way. It feels so clean and clear, not too tidy. He speaks slowly and seems to build his ideas as he speaks. He seems to have a through-line that connects it all for him, or if he doesn’t, he doesn’t mention what doesn’t connect and he doesn’t get derailed by it.
I don’t seem to have that clarity, that through-line. I can speak clearly and with passion like he does about many things, particularly about “how I do” things, some of which have great bearing on things that matter to me: research, which I’ve successfully spoken about at length to small and large groups; cooking and baking, dog-training, travelling, travelogues, gardening, meditation, the order or non- of my day, poetry, even some philosophical or psychological concepts. But remaining at the “how-to” level doesn’t fully accommodate the other levels, or swirls, or paths that aren’t “hows.”
Watching Bergman, listening to him, I feel that he has the great luxury of a certain kind of focus, the power to slow and channel the stream of ideas, feelings, etc., that I don’t have. I can sometimes get into that state, when writing a poem e.g., or when taking a photo, but I doubt I ever have been so focused when participating in a group conversation and rarely when talking with just one other person. Other people — their presence, spirit, eyes, bodies, projections — are very distracting for me, for better and worse.
Maybe if someone were interviewing me, I could speak clearly and cleanly, because I would be answering one question at a time (would have an externally imposed focus), and I wouldn’t be getting signals and vibrations from other people in a group (except the interviewer), I wouldn’t be listening to anyone else, I wouldn’t be absorbing a constant stream of feeling, ideas, thoughts, assumptions, contradictory messages, etc. Maybe then I could concentrate, words would surface.
But that seems quite different from the idea of group resonance that the CWI talks about, when group members’ feelings, thoughts, ideas, spirits, etc., would sort of harmoniously vibrate together.
I got a further sense of the possibilities of “collective wisdom” today when someone spoke at worship about her passion for evoking the artist in kids who need a way to express themselves safely.She seemed to believe in and be working to cultivate the magic of the group process, the wisdom that the groups knows. She was very passionate, felt to me authentically charged by her calling and her work. For her, the process is where it all happens, but the product — the artistry of the artwork? — is also important. That sounds like what the CWI is all about, using group work (in this case, both art and conversation, and relationships that evolve over time) for conflict-resolution, for generating possibilities and finding good solutions, for healing.
Back to Bergman: I do wonder whether Bergman is sometimes saying more than he knows, i.e, lying, making stuff up. I don’t mean ‘saying more than he knows’ in that way that intuition and the body can overtake us and give us the true response when our mind is busy spinning stories; I mean ‘saying more than he knows’ in the way that the mind makes up stuff because it sounds so damned plausible. I sense that he is doing this at times, and I think it’s a temptation for me, too, when talking about these ‘deep thoughts’ and emotions to rationalise, to seek reasons that aren’t there (yet), to string something together that sounds quite true and likely but that is really just making up explanations for what can’t be explained (to oneself) yet. I verbally flail about for cliches and truisms sometimes, because they half-capture the response — and sometimes I let them substitute for my true response — because it’s easier than slogging around. I wonder how a group seeking collective wisdom would work with this.
Writing is different from speaking. When writing, I don’t have to focus my thought or energy like I do in spoken conversation. I can go in different directions and occupy different layers, more than one part of the circle, almost simultaneously, in a way that I can’t in speaking. Still —
Silence and settling into ‘being present’ with each other is usually more meaningful or satisfying to me than anything I say.
Maybe, in a way, that’s the more pressing need (or fantasy) for me: a group (or person) to be with, to be silent with, that (who) can endure many moments of silence until something can be said, and then has patience to listen and wait, and maybe ask a few wise and open-ended questions, make a few connections, while we follow where the threads lead. Who doesn’t hold me or themselves to one response, or twenty, and who can let me refine and rework, erase, cut and paste, attach, hit delete and start all over. (As I say it, it sounds idealistic, because it’s hard for us to hear something, process it, and then forget it when the speaker tells us it’s not relevant anymore. But that’s what I’m asking. That it be forgotten as significant and remembered as once-significant at the same time.)
Except mostly I don’t feel such a group as a need. I just like it when it happens, which is very rarely. I feel that most interactions with people happen too quickly and I have the sense that most people want to ‘achieve’ something through group interactions and conversations. That gets in the way of everything for me (and for most people, I would guess?).
This essay, “There are exactly two ways: one, and many” (not on the CWI website) by Bill at Notional Slurry, interests me, though I don’t know who I am in it. He seems to say that longitudinal being is related to “the Life of the Mind,” which is “the cultivated ability to span boundaries, cross borders of disciplines, bring what you’ve learned over there to bear over here. … [It] is merely acting on the belief that what we see around us fits together.” He also says that the things that we see, that we notice, are of use, which in the ordinary sense of the word ‘use” I don’t see as true. What attracts me, what I notice, is what seems to be not of use, except that it’s what it is.
He goes on to say that when people ask him “Just what is it that you do?,” he responds: “This.” Then he explains to us: “It’s true whenever I say it. No matter where I go… this is what I’m probably doing.” What he’s talking about, I think, is noticing, exploring, experiencing, thinking about, and perhaps finding connections among the things that distract him: “There is something interesting in everything; if not in the act or the thing itself, then in what it implies.”
These distractions the things that really matter to me and what I am ‘doing’ most of the time is being distracted. And when I speak, it shows!
BITS & PIECES #2: A Call to Convene, and Flow
Vicki Robin’s paper (Call to Convene) spoke to me because I do think I have often felt and followed a call to convene groups.
For me, there isn’t a purpose in convening and conversing other than being together and conversing. Collective wisdom, group enlightenment, conflict resolution, solutions to anything, pooling of resources — these don’t seem to intrinsically matter to me in the context of this call. When I am responding to a feeling of being called, I’m not looking for “collective resonance” or group magic. I seek to be in the midst of people struggling aloud and silently with what matters to them (us), even when it’s awkwardly unmagical. Sometimes in a group (or one-on-one) conversation I hear or see something that gives me a glimpse into something amazing and jarring and life-altering. Maybe it happens for others, too. But if that never happened, I think I would be happy to be in conversation about things that matter to people.
I have been in long-term groups that really gel, where there is some kind of magic, maybe trust, maybe a recognition of our shared urge to dive to and explore a similar depth of … meaning? life? experience? love? pain? I don’t know. Those groups have felt very comforting, very safe, true, boundary-blending, loving. Still, even in that context, I have so much trouble wording what matters to me. The magic in those groups (one I’m thinking of in particular) derived partly from our struggles to try to speak these vibrating, disappearing, enduring things with each other, and partly from the deep secrets about our lives that we shared, and partly from intention, and maybe most from touch (massage, dance, holding hands), singing together, doing art together, sitting and looking at/into each other’s faces, eating and drinking together, and other non-conversation. It was a space to be, also rare in my experience. It wasn’t exactly spontaneous and it wasn’t exactly planned. Most weeks, it somehow flowed.
BITS & PIECES #3: How Do We Know It’s A Commons?
“So in the commons the alchemy of the third is found in wholeness. This suggests that when the question arises in those beginning the practice of the commons, “Is this a commons?” it may be answered by sensing how much wholeness is present and actualized. And because wholeness is invisible, we know it primarily through its effects. For example, we may know we are in the presence of wholeness when we feel ourselves to be deeply heard, perhaps because there is sufficient stillness amongst us to allow what we say to be fully received. Or suddenly we sense that our voice carries new clarity and strength, and those with us can hold strong voices without fear. Perhaps we know it because we feel whole and complete, and there is a warmth in us that lets us engage the deeper subtleties of meaning and connection. Often there is an accompanying, heightened trust in ourselves and others, so that we can move with grace and ease from a reliance on memory and past knowledge to the forming of new insights. Or we know that wholeness is present because we feel involved and engaged, that is we feel that we have a home here; the essence of our gifts has been taken in and embodied by the whole.
“Most important, it is the sense that the part of us that has felt orphaned in the world has now been taken in by the commons. This makes room for us to find our own thinking, and follow our own feeling in a way that is free from any need for defensiveness or self-deception. This in turn makes the fuller experience of wholeness possible. Furthermore, to be in the presence of wholeness is to acknowledge that it cannot ever be replicated; it comes to us as a gift and in a moment that is unique and unrepeatable.”
I like these words, and ‘wholeness’ and its effects as a ‘measure’ of whether the commons is a commons, a place of collective wisdom and magic.
Even though, as I said, I usually feel unable to verbally express what matters most to me — even to myself at any given time, because it all feels like an amorphous tag cloud, except all the words and phrases are visuals, memories, what I overheard, how it works together, that moment, colours, patterns, under water, something half-remembered, who you were, poem fragments, a death, more fragments, music, her letter, a mark on a calendar, some bits of dreams, a breath, a frisson, your smile, sand, what didn’t happen, that moment, etc — I do sometimes feel that I am heard when I speak, as much as is possible. Mostly I feel that people are trying hard to hear and are misunderstanding, assuming, personalising, biased, listening to something else, and all the things we are and do, the ways we miss each other and then solidify the illusion of the other. It happens.
I’m not sure we can be “fully received” or that we can do the same for others, no matter how strong the intent and the stillness. But something of significance, something that evokes compassion, the reminds us that “the other is me”, that lives and breathes life, can be received, and that’s good.
I don’t think I know what it means to feel like an orphan in the world. I feel whole and at home no where (maybe on a moving train) but anywhere, that I belong where I am, even when I feel unheard, misjudged (imo), different, ignored, excluded, lost and sad. I don’t think I look to the commons or conversation to make me whole or to find home. Even when I feel fragmented and scattered, at times, I can still locate myself (though, again, no where), in the pieces, like a shimmering hologram.
Jones also says:
“The commons is a listening field within which we may reawaken to the longing, wonder and belonging from which all new life begins. It offers a remedy for the isolation, loneliness and absence of meaning that have become the sickness of our time.”
I can’t recall not feeling longing, wonder and belonging. Not necessarily belonging to people but to where I am, if that makes any sense. And I also feel lonely, desolate, disconsolate, broken — and it feels good to feel all of that. When I can’t stop crying, I know I’m alive. (Reminds me of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”: It’s not somebody who’s seen the light / it’s a cold and it is a broken Hallelujah … ” For me, all the things Jones says CW can awaken, and all the things he says CW is a remedy for, are summed up in the beautiful longing of the phrase “broken Hallelujah.”
I know that people feel isolated and lonely and desolate and it doesn’t feel good at all. There’s pain, and then there’s denial, unendurable restlessness, stomach-churning fear, passive numbness … and I think that a place to converse or just be together is helpful, healing, even saving. It’s the idea of establishing or convening such a thing in order to help or save that feels unwieldy, imposed and sideways.
I don’t feel that way about the local coffee shop, though, which was established partly as a place for people to get together, as a commons of a sort. Maybe that feels different because the owner wanted it for herself as much as for anyone else. Or because she doesn’t force it but lets it happen as it does (or so it seems to me). She set aside the space, she created and re-creates the spirit of the place, and her presence (and the presence of her staff) in the space is what saves, if anything does.
What I like about what Jones says is the emphasis on staying with “not knowing,” the pleasure of kicking ideas around without having to come to conclusion, resolution, an outcome. The emphasis on exploring and discovering. That we can “listen for the space between” (lovely phrase) and that “confusion and uncertainty” may be “our new reality.”
I get the instability of the last concept. Confusion and uncertainty seem like quite different entities to me, though, not synonymous. Buddhism speaks of confusion somewhat ambiguously, as “the path” (“whatever occurs in the confused mind is the path” — that is, it’s all workable) and as a kind of energy that we can (perhaps will find it to our advantage to?) transmute “into clear wisdom” through the practices; it speaks of uncertainty as an accurate reflection of what is, something to sit with, make friends with, and not flee, because life is uncertain and trying to make it certain causes suffering. These Buddhist views feel true to my experience.
BITS & PIECES #4: Vulnerability and Silence
I agree with the part of the Collective Resonance Shifters map that shows that vulnerability and silence are considered the strongest identifiers or predictors of interpersonal resonance.