The Value of the Repair after the Rupture (Part 2: The Importance of Crisis)

An election haiku:

Music stopped today
Could hear coils buzz behind fridge
Is this the first time?

I begin this part 2 as I began part 1: with the proposal that the repair after the rupture is more valuable than there never being a rupture in the first place. 
I'll now add that crisis is necessary to provoke change in a system. 

The function of conflict in the world is to demonstrate, undeniably, that the status quo situation is not sustainable and must be transformed - for better or for worse.

That is the kind of situation we face today. As U.S. Americans and the whole of humanity, we stare wide-eyed over the precipice of the present moment into an inconceivable and unprecedented future. The resounding message from last Tuesday's election (and so many other events) is that there is a serious problem with our country and our world. The message from across the political spectrum is that things are broken and they need to change. In this way, the conflict that is alive today in U.S. American politics has set us on an irreversible course towards wholesale transformation. We can't go backwards. We can't put this back in the box. Centrism is no longer an option. Things are changing, and our participation in the process is non-negotiable. The way we act now is the change. We (all of us) are the team that gets to decide what we do next.

Wait. 

Team? Us?

Let's return to the threefold commitment from Part 1:
1.    Affirm the connection, recognize the relationship,
2.   Show up with your authentic and true self,
3.   Stay for the repair that comes after the inevitable rupture.

1. As Americans (and as humans)* we must start by recognizing that we are in relationship with each other. Like it or not, we are being called to build the future together. We cannot continue divided. We are interdependent and we will need to reach across the spaces, culture and algorithms that separate us. 

Some folk want to secede. Even if that were possible, it won't work. Just imagine, if we decide to divide into ever smaller units (all the way down to two) we will always face the debate of progressive vs. conservative. It is an infinite question. No matter how much we want to be free of that which challenges us, it will always be there. Just think about your family. Furthermore, even if we were totally alone, there is still an opportunity to develop compassion with the parts of our own selves that we don't agree with or struggle to tolerate. 

2. The challenge that we are facing now is the product of people finding and expressing their voices. We are seeing people across the board finding the courage to say that they want the world to be different, and many are finding ways to point out how they are concerned. Whether the act is protesting, attending rallies, voting for a political outsider or taking a knee during the national anthem, people are speaking up, and the consensus of Americans is that we are worried about what's happening in our country. And yet the voices are each unique. Each of us is bringing a different flavor of concern to the table, based on our unique life experience and perspective. The rise of voices has prompted the crisis that we are in. The conflict has been laid bare. We can no longer ignore the conversations that we need to have about race, gender, faith, culture, environment, progress, and tradition, and we can no longer ignore the voices of those with whom we have disagreement. 

3. Now the call is for all of us to step up and follow through with the repair. To do that, we need to continue to elevate our unique perspectives, requests and offerings, and we are going to need to listen to one another's perspectives, requests and offerings. The dance of self and community is infinite, and the question isn't ever who's right or wrong, instead we have to ask how we are going to manage a future that holds such incredible diversity.

I know that this is a tremendously hard pill to swallow for almost everyone. The level of vitriol in our politics today is insanely high. For many people this situation is not only frightening, but traumatic. Trump has explicitly threatened numerous cultures, races and individuals, as well as U.S. Democracy and the Constitution (free speech/press, due process, freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, etc.). He has stoked a hidden culture of xenophobia, sexism, racism, religious oppression, homophobia, and much more. Just the idea of having him as our representative on the international stage is embarrassing and terrifying. 

Nonetheless... I still believe, as I did in June, that Trump is a distraction from the main point. The main point is that people are pissed just as much as they are divided. As Tim Urban explains here, "voting for a candidate does not imply that you espouse all of his or her views." That is the edge of the silver lining here. We don't need to talk to Trump. We need to talk to each other. We still haven't even begun the conversation about the America that we aspire to be. Until November 8th, most people didn't even realize that there were such different conversations happening.

Just today I was teaching effective listening skills to high school students. When compared to the experience of trying to talk over one another, everyone agreed that it felt better to be listened to by other, and that it felt better to actually listen to others. There was also the stark reminder that we have all been guilty of not listening to another person, because we were so focused on being heard. There is a powerful opportunity next week for U.S. American families to practice our listening skills as we gather for Thanksgiving. The listening skills include asking questions, reflecting back to people what we've heard and summarizing the stories they've told us. For all of us there is an opportunity to show that we can be empathetic to the struggles of others just as we'd want them to do to us. By listening we are affirming our interconnectedness and showing that we are ready to begin the repair. Let's help each other bring forward each others' best voices. 

Here are some questions or conversation prompts that you might want to try (from Public Conversations Project):

  • Share a story from you life experience that you think may have shaped your perspective about the election.
  • What are the hopes, concern or values do you have that inform your approach to politics? Where or how did you learn them?
  • Are there ways that your values and perspectives have been stereotyped by the otherside? If so, what is it about who you are that makes the stereotypes especially upsetting? Are there some stereotypes of your own party that you feel are somewhat deserved - even if they are not fully true?
  • Given the challenges we face, what dreams do you have for yourself, your family, community or country? What steps can you take toward making one dream real?
  • What do you hope we can work on tog ether?

I know that this is scary. No one really wants to have these conversations. It seems easy to just hate and ignore each other like we were doing before, and that brings us full circle to the importance of crisis. We need the crisis to force us to face the situation that we're in. If we decide that things aren't bad enough. If we choose to remain divided and not engage in the repair, then we are choosing to wait until an even greater crisis before we move forward. This is not something that we can continue to ignore. (Un)fortunately we have a whopper of a four year and three month long crisis on our hands, so it won't be so easy to collectively forget as a shooting or a hurricane. Things can only get better or worse from here, and we are the ones who get to make that choice. And we can only make the choice for our self and create space for others to do the same. 

The future will not (can no longer) be one of centrism and compromise. The future we are stepping into can only be proud, collaborative and diverse. To get there we will need all of the voices to be at the table. 

Good Luck America! Good Luck World!


These two On Being podcasts really hit the spot for me in understanding the election:
"Is America Possible?" with Vincent Harding - Here is an an excerpt: "In regards to building a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious democratic society, America is still a developing country... The knowledge is available if we seek it... It will be hard work."
"How to Live Beyond this Election" with Natasha Trethewey and Eboo Patel

Also don't miss my blog post from June about the "Invisible Voices" that would invite a Trump presidency if we didn't listen to them. 
Finally check out my Fractal Friends podcast with Steve McIntosh about "Transcending Political Polarization."


*I want to acknowledge that I'm allowing a U.S. American-centric perspective of this article. Nonetheless, this affects everyone in the world. I will also say that the dynamic where a populist conservative movement is clamoring for a voice and the progressive movement is shocked and surprised is ubiquitous. I see similar debates arising occurring in Britain, Colombia, India, Turkey, Argentina, France, Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, and lots of Europe, etc. 

The Value of the Repair after the Rupture (Part 1)

I begin with the proposal that the repair after the rupture is more valuable than there never being a rupture in the first place.

Nonetheless, I have spent a great deal of energy avoiding personal conflict in my life. Other times I’ll suppress my needs in order to accommodate the needs and interests of others. I’m actually quite good at this. With a high capacity for empathy, observation, and adaptability, I’ve lived a mostly conflict-free life. (I'm including the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Modes model below for further context.)*

But something has been missing. I’m not showing up. The danger in constantly adapting my needs to those of others is that I disappear. When I project the responsibility onto others for my own self-sacrifices I become resentful. This corrosive force has been a recurring theme in my relationships. I feel that my sacrifice goes unacknowledged, I begin to feel trapped and then I long to be alone.

Not only is this behavior self-destructive. There is also a hidden distortion of perception in this tendency. When I focus solely on pleasing and taking care of others, I’m missing the fact that others also experience the joy of giving. I find great joy in helping others, and they do too. If I keep my interests to myself then I’ve taken away the opportunity for others to even consider sharing with me or offering me support. My desire for people to voice their needs is real, but I tend not to afford this gift to others.

I remember my good friend telling me once that she needed me to say “No” to her sometimes, so that she can trust that my “Yes” is authentic. Well now, years later, I’m finally practicing my capacity to say “No.” Another way to say it is that I’m practicing my capacity to show up authentically and this requires me to say “No” and requires me to ask for what I want. More than anything it asks me to act from my heart.

There seems to be a deep danger in ceasing to defer to others and in asking for what I want and it is two-fold: The first danger is that when I say “No” to someone, or they say “No” to my authentic request, I’ll find myself in conflict. The second danger is that by acting authentically I risk disappointing others, and it will be me who has done that.

So I find myself in a bind. I either avoid conflict, disappointment and myself and risk withering away in resentment and isolation, or I express my authentic interests, act from my heart and risk conflict and being responsible for letting people down.

One tool that I’ve learned comes from Celeste Hirschman, co-creator of Somatica and author of Making Love Real. She offers the following three-part commitment that she makes in relationships. We are invited to consider the same commitments:

1.    Maintain the connection,
2.    Show up with your authentic and true self,
3.   Stay for the repair that comes after the rupture.

I love how this simple set of commitments points to a cycle. The first commitment sets the foundation. By committing to the connection we affirm that the relationship is one that we are in and we know that it is important, valuable or at least inevitable.

The second commitment affirms that a quality connection requires the involved parties to show up and bring their best selves. It's better if both can bring their full self to the table, but we can only begin by doing this for ourselves.

The third commitment is a direct result of the first two. If we are in relationship with others and we are committed to expressing our true needs and interests, then eventually we will find ourselves in conflict. In authentic relationships there will always be disagreements and there will be rupture, and it becomes crucial to follow through with the repairs. This brings us back to our first commitmen to maintain the connection. 

If we authentically hold the connection and follow through with the difficult stuff we are guaranteed to grow.  

So here is my current practice in life. I am going to practice speaking up for my interests and needs. I say practice, because I know that it is a skill that I’ve been developing and one that I’ll continue to develop. The skill that I’m specifically trying to work on is to be curious about what is coming up for me. When? With who? In what conditions and contexts? Eventually I am hoping to learn to communicate what I want in a way that is direct and clear, yet also compassionate. Generally, when I try to be nice, I am indirect to a fault and the result is drawn out and painful miscommunication. In contrast when I do find the courage to speak my voice, I usually have to cut through the frustration, and the result can be a bratty outburst. I’d like to trust that I can confidently speak my voice in a way that is mature and easy to hear, but the truth is that I am practicing. I am very much humbled by this practice.

This brings me to the point I started this conversation with: the repair after the rupture is more valuable than there never being a rupture in the first place.

This means that we are in a world a diverse people and perspectives that will not always align. It means that to have a world with thriving people and relationships we’ll need to give voice to those perspectives. This will often lead to rupture, especially if we are still unskilled about how we say “yes” or “no” or if we still struggle with people saying “yes” or “no”  to us. We are all in a lifelong process of learning how to be humans, so we can also practice being patient with one and another.

The main point here is that there is a magic that can happen when put our cards on the table and it becomes a mess. When we express ourselves in ways that leave us and those around us triggered, we are then invited to actually commit to the follow through of the repair process. When we choose to engage in the process of repairing the ruptures that result from our authentic expression, we are doing something really special.

We are affirming that everyone’s voices and perspectives are valid and desired. We are also affirming that there is space for the emotions that the expression of our interests bring up. In a way, we are saying that both the relationship and the individual matter, and we simultaneously affirm that the process matters too.

So here is my commitment. I'm going to let myself voice my own needs. It is not just a request. It is a gift. To do this, I'm going to take refuge in the idea that my capacity to follow through the repair after the ruptures will strengthen my relationships, foster collaboration and liberation. 


*Thomas Kilmann Conflict Modes model presents 5 strategies for folk to use in the face of conflict. The y-axis is measure of how important it is to get the outcome that you want. The x-axis is a measure of how much you want to preserve the relationship. Those who seek to preserve the relationship but don't care about their own needs will tend to accommodate the requests/demands of the other, while those who care about their outcome but not the relationship will choose to compete with the other person. Many hedge their bets and go to compromise where neither is fully satisfied but at least some needs are being met for outcome and relationship. The choice to avoid conflict means that you will never get your needs met, and it also implies that you will never be in full relationship. Conflict is a natural part of being in relationship with other humans. The dream is to collaborate, taking the time to find an outcome that meets both people's needs and affirms the relationship in the process. All of these strategies are appropriate in certain contexts. It is very useful to be aware and intentional about what you are choosing and why.

The Imperceptible Line between "It's No Big Deal" and "It's Hopeless"

There is an abundance of conflict in the world.
There is an abundance of mediators and conflict resolution professionals in the world. 
There is a scarcity of demand for mediation and conflict resolution in the world. 

What's up?

In the field of mediation and conflict resolution we work with people when they are in a special place that most people in conflict are not even able to perceive. Our work as a community is to expand the awareness and accessibility of this place. The space lies in between the concepts of "It's no big deal" and "It's hopeless."

Generally when people are in conflict their initial reaction is to think that it is not a big deal and to perceive that it should be possible to resolve it relatively easily. Eg: "Surely if the other person will just listen to how reasonable I am, it will all be over soon." Later they may come to realize that the conflict can't get resolved through conventional means, and the reaction then is usually hopelessness and the perception that the differences are irreconcilable. The next step then is to end the relationship or to try to destroy the other through legal means or through violence. 

In that process the person has bypassed a third option without even knowing. The third option comes from the potential realization that the conflict is not hopeless and that the people involved can't resolve the situation on their own. In other words, if they had some support there could be a great deal of hope about the potential for resolution. This is the place where mediation or another conflict resolution process become available. The tendency to overlook this option is common across scales, from interpersonal to international conflict.

I believe that the hope of humanity's survival depends on the world realizing that there is another way to be in conflict that can work for everyone and that we need to do that as soon as possible. 

The principle challenge is a ubiquitous lack of awareness of the existence of mediation. It's not a job that children aspire to, it's not widely recognized as a profession, it's not mentioned by public figures who face prolific and complex conflict. Another challenge is that there are people who seem to benefit from the perpetuation of the idea that there are people who are right and there are people who are wrong. Ways of living that work for everyone and embrace our common humanity are a serious challenge to the status quo where so much is framed as an eternal battle between right and wrong. Often the popular way to prove one's righteousness is to show that the other perspective is wrong. This is the "lesser of evils" approach, and in the long term it creates a downward spiral. 

So how can we cut through these barriers and develop a greater awareness of the possibility that conflict can be resolved and that there are people ready to help? Those of us who know the power of mediation and conflict resolution need to be persistent advocates for the field of work. We need to be vocal about how we've seen it change people's lives.

I propose a three-fold message that we want to make ubiquitous:
1) Conflict is normal and happens to everyone. It is a fundamental part of the human experience.
2) There are ways to get through conflict that can work for all involved and even deepen relationships.  
3) There are people who are very eager and capable to help you with this process.  

This message needs to be shared with people on both sides of the "imperceptible line" and the line needs to cease to be imperceptible. 

Traditionally conflict resolution is seen as an alternative to litigation, an alternative to a legal process. In this light "alternative dispute resolution" (ADR) often focuses on pulling people back from the state of hopelessness once they have already crossed the line. Often this can happen naturally or by helping people realize that it would be too costly to walk away from the relationship (financially, relationally, etc.). The legal system can handily be shown to be inadequate in its capacity to deal with the nuance and tenderness of human relationships. This is when folk often get referred to mediation. 

It is interesting to consider how we can help people see the line before they arrive there. This strategy would focus on normalizing the decision to ask for support before a conflict becomes a big deal. This concept of lowering the bar to access is very much underexplored. It could be an option to deal with difficult relationships that don't have a specific object of conflict. Mediation is a great choice for any relationship facing a change in the status quo. It is a great way to prepare for or to navigate new experiences and situations in any relationship. There is a whole universe of unexplored opportunities where mediation can help people communicate what is important to them and understand what is important to others well before they find themselves in an intractable conflict. This is also the space where the truly generative work might unfold. This is a place of powerful hope. 

In order to open up this new access point, the strategy will need to be to ensure that the imperceptible line becomes an obvious line that people need to choose to cross on their conscious path to hopelessness. To accomplish this society and culture will need to incorporate conflict resolution and mediation into its day-to-day vocabulary. One way to advance this goal is to remind and teach strategic people with influence that there is a way through conflict and encourage them to be public advocates that can normalize effective mediation. These can be businesses, governments, non-profit organizations, celebrities, community groups, non-governmental organizations and trans-governmental organizations.

Finally, we should note that this whole conversation stems from the fact that we usually don't recognize conflict until it becomes a negative experience, which usually means that we have already crossed the "line" without noticing. So...

The final trick is that we can't just tell people all these things. We have to help them arrive at these realizations on their own, and we can only do that by listening. By creating open-hearted spaces for people to tell us what they're struggling with, we can help them understand that conflict doesn't resolve itself. This human experience of diverse and evolving perspectives is a permanent and ongoing condition, and it's terrifying. As long as we can open to the process of divergence and integration, we can forever improve the way that we relate to our own selves and to each other. Sometimes we'll need help. 

Invisible Voices?

I want to preface this post in the same way I prefaced my recent podcast "Transcending Political Polarization with Steve McIntoshby saying that I know that its content is provocative and controversial, and that I invite your respectful and thoughtful feedback in the comments section. 

I'm struck by the way that the media, political and business "elites" keep on being surprised or shocked by the people voting in ways they can't understand. They were surprised by the rise of Donald Trump as the presumed Republican presidential candidate and they were surprised at the choice in the United Kingdom's people to leave the European Union (Brexit). It seems that they can't believe what's happening and they definitely have struggled to predict all that is unfolding. Josh Barro of the radio show Left, Right and Center said it well when he asked, if there is a "pattern of things that elites didn't want to happen and therefore convinced themselves that they wouldn't happen?" ("Brexit, What Does it Mean for the United States..." 24 June 2016.

I think that this blind spot is due to a mis-focus of attention. The symbolism of Trump or Brexit is rich and compelling and but it is a distraction. In my opinion, in both of these cases, the thing to be paying attention to is not the person (Trump) nor the issue (Brexit). The thing to notice is that there is a huge population of people who do not feel represented by the current political status quo. It seems that they are so underrepresented that the media and political elites can barely conceptualize their existence, or how they think the way they do. Furthermore, this part of the population is trying to say that they won't put up with not being heard any more. The fear that the elites are not listening to the plight of the American working class families seems to be true.  

(Yes, there is also a serious problem of various minority voices not being heard, and there is problem of progressive voices not being heard. In this post, however, I'm moving those to an endnote.*)

In the recent Brexit referendum the vote was generally split along various demographic lines. Younger, more educated, higher class and more urban populations tended to vote to stay in the EU, while the older, less educated, poor, working class and rural populations tended to vote to leave the EU. A similar demographic split seems to be playing out in U.S. politics as well with the support for Trump. Before the finger pointing takes over, I think that it's important to recognize that we all have a role to play in this story. Sure, our politics are divided, but we've also allowed this division to pour into our interpersonal relationships. We're letting ourselves get divided within our families and communities. In many cases we're affirming and enforcing the divisions in an effort to feel safe. (See: my recent blog post about this.) I've heard too often people express fear about discussing the state of the world with their parents, colleagues and friends, the ones they are actually connected with. There are not enough open lines of communication between the various perspectives in our society. We're drifting apart and we're not listening to each other. Or as my friend Jesse summarizes conflict, everyone wants to be heard so much that we've stopped listening to one another.

I'm going to take this topic on in three parts. First, I want to validate the fear that the political, business and media elites are out of touch with the average citizens of their countries. Second, I want to acknowledge the sense that people are getting left behind in this process. Finally, I want to apply my three rules of conflict as a tool for understanding what's happening and what concerned people might do in response to this situation. 

I'm Not Represented

I think that it is important to acknowledge the fact that there are a lot of voices that are underrepresented in our current mainstream political and business culture. This lack of representation is a concern for people across the political spectrum. There is the fear that "Main Street" is overshadowed by Wall Street. The working class and the average American is underrepresented in a globally focused political system. (Minority and progressive voices too. See endnote) The political representatives that have claimed to care for the interests of "average Americans" have not followed through, or have only succeeded in playing an obstructionist role to policies they don't agree with. The politicians and business leaders and media all seem to out of touch with what the day-to-day lives of people is about. (This On the Media story about the historical oppression of and pandering to poor white communities captures this idea well.)

In his book Rebooting Democracy Manual Arriaga begins by laying out "Ten Reasons why Politicians Fail to Represent Us (and Always Will)." It's a great list and you can find it here. For now I want to highlight reason #9: The political class is not demographically representative of the general population. He goes on to say, "As one might expect, this huge gap between the life conditions of our rulers and the reality inhabited by large parts of the population means that it is very difficult for politicians to even grasp the consequences of many of their decisions on the lives of citizens. And if merely grasping those consequences is already that hard, then it is virtually hopeless that politicians would be able to experience the empathy required to fully gauge the consequences of their decisions."  (p. 21) 

When one is surprised at the rise of Donald Trump, the thing we need to understand is that the people finally see someone calling "bullshit" on the government. He likely can't deliver on his promises and he definitely doesn't represent any average American, but at least he's speaking in a way that seems to reflect their feelings.

Am I Special?

The working class populations have been disproportionately hurt by the arc of politics and globalization over the last decades. Industry in the United States, United Kingdom (and other "developed" countries) has taken a serious hit (see: Detroit), and there is an drive towards global and cultural diversity that is ready to forget rodeos, apple pie and the pride of being a soldier or responsible gun owner. It's perplexing why working class people would support the republican party when its elites tend to care much more about business interests than the plight of the working poor. One reason they have been so successful, however, is that republicans are the last voices to say that the average American is special. That the United States is special. That national values are still important.

Recently, I was talking about how, when observed from abroad, the United States is no longer appearing exceptional. Instead it looks like a country that is ineffective and divided. It also is becoming clear that the era where white and European culture rules the world is coming to an end. The 1900s saw the rise of US. American dominance. This century, however, will see the United States become simply a player in the international community. The future will continue to be more diverse and pluralistic.

The person I was talking too, asked me in a panic, "Is it okay for me to want to feel special?" She fretted that Obama and the progressive left have been super focused on showing our national flaws and how we are just one among many nations. She longed for someone to affirm that it is okay to be proud of being an American. She longed for someone to affirm that she was special. Indeed, I'd say that everyone longs to be able to be proud of who they are. I do. 

So when we look at what we see unfolding in politics right now. It's worth looking past Trump's fact-bereft politics and the economic dangers of Brexit and pay attention to the voice that has been marginalized that is starting to scream, "What about me? No one seems to care about my fears! Can't I just be proud of my country again?" This nationalistic and conservative voice is asking us to not forget the history and heritage that got us to where we are. The current manifestations of this may be rooted in fear, reactivity and outright racism at times, but there is part of the voice that does need to be heard. To be able heal and progress we do need to care about all the voices. We can't go boldly marching forward into a pluralistic globalized society and leave half of our nation behind. We will need to carry forward the parts of our history and ourselves that we're proud of if we hope to build a sustainable future with reliable foundations.

Lessons from The Three (Four) Rules of Conflict. 

These last years I developed what I call the three rules of conflict. I want to apply them here to see if they help us understand what's happening in politics today. 

1. The conflict is never about what the conflict is about. 

As I laid out above, this is not about Donald Trump or Brexit, it's about a chunk of the population that is afraid of losing their identity. There is a fear that foundational values and traditions are under threat. There is a universal and ever-present tension between the desire to change and the desire to stay the same. It's at the core of all political debate and conflict that I can think of. For many reasons conservative people fear that progressive voices don't care about them, and that is an existential threat. The heart of this conflict then asks us how we achieve a truly inclusive culture that both looks forward and holds onto traditions.  

2. Whoever is not involved in the resolution of a conflict will find a way to involve themselves on their own terms.

There seems to be a desire to ignore or discount the voices that are angry about immigration, gun rights and national identity. Many of the voices are so offensive and triggering that it's hard to hear them at all. I've even heard people argue that these voices should be excluded that they are uneducated and racist. Nonetheless, it is not possible to get rid of voices that we don't want to hear. The 2nd rule of conflict reminds us that if they are excluded from the conversation they will get involved on their own terms. That's exactly what's happening. These voices have leveraged the political system to get a candidate that finally seems to give them a voice (in the U.S.) and to claim independence from that E.U. government in Brussels (in the U.K.). The republican establishment has now lost control of its platform, and after watching the U.K. population vote to leave the European Union we must open to the possibility that the wave of voices could carry Trump all the way to the presidency. The anger about Clinton's apparent incapacity to represent average Americans and high capacity to represent business interests is palpable across the political spectrum. 

So, the choice seems to be between ignoring voices and losing control, on one hand, and striving to hear and incorporate the wisdom of the voices, on the other. This brings us to the third rule of conflict. 

3. The process of managing a conflict and the outcome are the same.  

The liberal and progressive project is rooted in the idea of inclusion. It urges us to look beyond our own race, culture, nationality, gender and species, and it invites us to see ourselves as a part of a greater tapestry of life and humanity. It asks us to see the fact that our way of life is not the only one, and all ways are important or have a place. There is a catch, however, the true umbrella of inclusivity must extend to include everyone, including those who don't want to be inclusive. As John Paul Lederach says in The Moral Imagination, it requires "the capacity to imagine ourselves in a web of relationships, one that includes even our enemies."

The point that I want to make here is that if we want to build a strong and inclusive society, we need to have a strong and inclusive process to do so. The future of the United States will need to include the people who are passionate about their country and American identity. We absolutely need to acknowledge and make amends for some of the horrors that the U.S. has inflicted on the world (eg: slavery and colonialism), and we need to address the horrible things we are doing right now (eg: environmental destruction and economic imperialism), but we can't do that at the expense of national pride and patriotism. Furthermore those who are focused on celebrating U.S. American leadership in the world, will similarly need to recognize that true leadership requires change, inclusion and humility. These are profound paradoxes that we need to learn to navigate. 

In today's political climate it is almost impossible to imagine how there can be any dialogue across the polarized political field, but that is what we are being invited to do. If we don't want our respective countries to rip apart, then this process of raising our voices must also be a process where we learn to listen to one another. There simply isn't much of a choice.

And just to keep it real I'm adding a fourth rule of conflict: 

4. There will never be a final outcome.

As much as we'd like to settle these questions once and for all (perhaps in an election or referendum), the truth is that this isn't a question that we can resolve, it is a system to be managed. The dynamic tension between left and right, conservative and progressive, nationalism and globalism will always be with us. Neither will ever win over the other, so we need to start thinking about being intentional in this process. We can choose to make this process generative, ensuring that the best of both sides is carried forward and the shadows of each side are minimized. Or we can choose a degenerative path where each side continues to escalate their voice (shadows and all) while trying to shout down the other. We just can't afford to continue ignoring those we don't agree with. We can't change others perspectives either. We can, however, change how we relate to each other. 

In my opinion, it all comes back to healthy individuals, families and communities. What would it take for us to accept folk as they are? How can we better listen to and affirm the hopes, fears and dreams of one another? How can we strengthen ourselves to be able to open to others in all of their difference?

(In case you still have hope that one side will prevail, I want to direct your attention to research by John Hibbing that shows that liberal and conservative views might be a biological predisposition. We might not be able to change the way we think. Here's an interview about that, and here's a test you can take to determine your political predisposition.) 


*It is super important to point out that there are many marginalized voices that are not central in our national discourse. There are important minority communities whose voices are being ignored. They range from immigrants, people of color and religious minorities to LGBTQ folk, women and children. Oppression is real. Institutional racism is real. Prejudice, homophobia, xenophobia and sexim are real. There are a lot of voices that we don't hear. (As an example of a voice that is marginalized, I was touched by this piece where a gay muslim discusses his reaction the Orlando shooting.)

Progressive voices are also ignored by mainstream politics, business and media in very important ways. The surprise of the success of Bernie Sanders' campaign highlights the fact that there is a large piece of the population that feels like it's progressive voice is not represented in mainstream politics and is actively ignored, and for the most part, that perception is true. There are people who are fighting very hard for us to pay attention to the dangers of climate change, our addiction to oil and runaway capitalist growth. 

I'll also say, that privileged white male U.S. American voices have historically taken up disproportionately more space than any voices. There is important work that we all need to do to make sure that representation is equitable across all races, classes, genders and creeds. It is imperative that we all create that space, but we can't do that at the expense of anyone. We are all in this together.

Whether one comes from the Tea Party movement, the Libertarian movement, the Occupy movement or the Black Lives Matter movement, everyone seems to agree that the government is failing to represent the interests of large swaths of the population. Across the board there is a growing disdain for mainstream, moneyed interests. As long as these voices don't feel heard they will continue to raise a ruckus and we should stop being surprised by that. 

I Finally Understand "I Statements."

A couple weekends ago I attended the ManKind Project retreat. I found the whole thing to be a transformative experience for myself and the men around me. In addition to learning about myself, one surprise take home from the training was that I finally understand the true power and value of "I statements."

Historically I've long been aware of the value of speaking from my own experience. I get that I can't assume to speak for others. I also understand that my perspective is as important as others' perspectives. All perspectives need a place at the table. I understood this as a fundamental piece of conflict resolution. I also understand it through the lens of anti-oppression and the value of owning my own stuff. 

Another way that I've understood "I statements" is through the lens of Non-Violent Communication (NVC). NVC offers the famous "I statement" formula: "When (X objective experience) happens, I feel (feeling). Would you (request)?" This model is as powerful as it is clunky. I often have found myself arguing that it is a teaching tool to learn the elements of NVC: learning to see events without judgement, figuring out what you need and asking for it. I also find myself needing to point out that speaking through set and rigid formulas is a quick way to lose one's natural voice. Anyway, NVC I statements are the bedrock of effective communication for people in conflict, but still didn't understand their power until the ManKind Project retreat. 

At the MKP retreat two of the men did a skit where they modeled people speaking about experiences. They first told their story from the universal "we" and "you," and then they told them while speaking from "I." Something clicked for me and I saw that "I statements" can serve me far beyond managing my perspective relative to others or expressing my needs. "I statements" simply make a better story. 

When I speak from my experience, and I choose not to generalize it to a wider population, my story becomes both more compelling and more precise. The precision is fundamental. When I speak from "I" I know that I can speak in absolute detail about my subjective experience. I can be clear and honest about what I experienced and how I felt about what I experienced. My unique perspective is then validated by its accuracy. The real key piece for me, however, is that when I tell my own story it becomes more compelling. I am inviting the listener or audience to step into my mind's eye imagine the world as I see it. It stops being a story that I'm trying to impose on another or make someone feel. Instead it becomes an invitation to share in my vulnerability, and that is what makes it easier and more interesting to hear. 

Finally, speaking for myself clarifies something about my own life experience. I am the one here in this skin, with these experiences, with these hopes and dreams. As much as I imagine that everyone shares them, it is not true. My contribution is unique, and it feels courageous to celebrate that. What a mysterious and profound thing to be anyone at all. 

Choosing a Lifelong Practice

Lately I've been reflecting on my choice to engage ever more deeply into the lifelong practice of personal growth, and how that it is also in service to the world around me and the relationships in my life. I'm increasingly recognizing, among many other things, that a key part of this work is differentiating and understanding what's mine, what what belongs to others and what are the things we share amongst us. The need for the differentiation of self and other and the complementary integration of the same is the first interdependent paradox* that comes up in this post.

The choice to engage in a lifelong practice of personal development includes a second interdependent paradox: On one hand, this is a choice that commits me to deep unending effort. There is no destination, so I am faced with the need to constantly start anew. On the other hand, it is a journey that I get to release into. I simply need to allow it to unfold. The arc of growth and evolution is not optional. The choice here invites me to be open-eyed, trusting and to let go of outcomes. 

I think that it's useful imagine what the inverse of this path might entail. The opposite of opening to a journey of personal growth would be an assertion that I am already fine and that I already know what I need to know. I could entrench myself into my fixed identity, I could back that with a demand for safety and protection of that self. The path of self-protection, however, is a path towards suffering, isolation and victimhood. 
There are some interesting things to notice about the choice to not grow. To begin with, it is impossible to be protected from the rest of the world. Resistance of this sort is futile and can only lead to frustration and further isolation. Furthermore, it is worth noting that this path is championed in current mainstream culture. There are lots of forces today that encourage us to identify our unique qualities, assert our capacities and to insulate ourselves from any triggers or challenges to our precious selves. There are facebook algorithms, specialized radio and television programs, and created safe spaces that all work to only expose us to those who we agree with and insulate us from others and others' perspectives. This cultural trend towards isolation from those who challenge us cuts across all scales and sectors. I believe that this explains many of our modern social ills. 

So, what can we do? We can't protect ourselves from differences. We can't get rid of everyone or everything we don't like. We can't gloss over the work with positivity and lip service.  As I've said before in this blog, the only choice is to work on ourselves. The problem is that we often don't feel safe in ourselves either.  I sure don't a lot of the time. 

Safety may not be something that we can demand from others, but it is something that we can cultivate in ourselves. When we ask what part of ourselves doesn't feel safe, we can discover a community of shadow friends or beautiful monsters** within us. The darkest parts of ourselves are the potential allies that we are afraid to look at. They scare us, because they are defending our deepest wounds and most intimate fears. So, a key part of the practice is to allow, embrace and acknowledge their role in our lives. We must recognize that they won't go away on their own, so we must take on the responsibility and freedom (another paradox) to cultivate our own deeply felt sense of internal safety. We need to connect with the basic and unconditional human goodness that's in all of us. 

I've been engaging in the intentional practice of working with my shadow friends lately and it has been very fruitful. As part of this I've also begun carrying around a notebook with me so that I can write them down when they pop up in my mind. Here are some examples of shadow voices I've heard: "You're not good enough." "They're all looking at you and judging you." "Your belly is too big." "As a white man you can't be a leader." "Don't let them tell you what you can't be." As I've engaged with these voices I've learned that they often have some wisdom they want to tell me and that I've been ignoring them. As I've engaged, I've found myself negotiating with them, promising to give them a voice if they can chill out or change their tune. I'm also learning to recognize them as my voices, as part of my rich inner landscape. They're slowly becoming things like: "I should be thoughtful about what I'm committing myself to and not overextend myself." "Pay attention to what's happening right now." "I really want to be loved." "I ought to be mindful about the space I'm taking, and be supportive of the leadership around me." "Yes, I do have something to offer." Even if they can't be transformed I need to see they aren't going away. I've personally found that meditation and therapy can be very helpful in this work, and I've also enjoying doing shadow exercises similar to the one's on this page. As I get to know myself, warts and all, I naturally develop the capacity to find safety in my own interior. 

Fun right!!! Why would I care about doing all this work? Because the people around me and the world as a whole need me to show up. This is the third paradox: When I finally stop protecting my identity from change, I create space for my truer self to develop. The world needs thoughtful and self-aware people. By being more secure in my own self, I become increasingly able to be present for the people who I care about. I create more space for others to feel safe and for them to show up. The very thing that I wanted to, yet couldn't, ask of others in the beginning becomes the very thing that I'm able to offer. This process then becomes generative. The more I grow, the more secure I am, the more that I can make space for you to feel secure and to grow. We all get to show up more and more. 

Before closing, I feel like it's important to flag here that as someone with privilege (race, gender, nationality, etc.) I feel especially called to do this work. Due to the trajectory of history, the global culture of deep inequality and oppression, I must recognize that I'm part of the group that has the capacity to be the most destructive. I must admit that I have the furthest to travel in the process of taming my ego, so that I can get to a place where I can humbly offer my highest self. Facing the crushing humility of this reality and my shadows' tendency to resist the need for me to face my own privilege, I return to the reality that I need to do the work on myself. The regenerative nature of the interdependent paradox continues. Yes, I need to be aware of how I impact and support others, and the direction of path to seeing how I affect others is inwards. 


* Interdependent paradoxes are polarities that define themselves in relation to the other. When taken together they are generative, giving each other meaning. When we try to separate them or favor one over the other they are destructive. Physicist Neils Bohr said, "The opposite of a fact is falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth."

** I offer gratitude to my teachers Alan Sloan, Jerry Granelli and Margaret Wheatley and their teachers Pema Chödron, Sogyal Rinpoche and Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche for being vectors of much of the wisdom contained in this post. 

A Proud and Irresistible Future

I went to a men's retreat and initiation called the New Warrior Training Adventure this weekend. The NWTA is organized by the ManKind Project, whose mission is "Changing the world one man at a time." I highly recommend the retreat for any man* who has a mom or a dad or doesn't. I want to share with you a lovely realization that I took home with me: 

The beautiful world that we are trying to build, that I am dedicating my life to building must be irresistible.** To create a world that people can't resist being a part of we will need to help people find a way to contribute from their heart, from a place of play, joy and confidence. It will need to be world where we are proud of ourselves. 

This is a powerful addition to the idea that we need to figure out how to all get along, that I feature so prominently in this Fractal Friends project. To build the world where we're all in this together, we will each need to consider what is our unique and amazing contribution to the world we dream of. Furthermore, we all need to offer support to the brothers and sisters who want to refine their offering or are afraid to show their truth.

This point about fear is key. Speaking from my experience, I can say that I've hesitated to fully unfurl my offering to the world because I've been afraid that it's not good enough, and I've been ashamed to live into my power. I think that shame drives a lot of our lives. We either hide from what we're ashamed of or we use it to motivate our actions. Our shame around how much we've damaged the world and each other pushes us to try to do better. It's kind of effective, but it also feels absolutely toxic to me. 

The opposite of shame seems to be pride. Yet we're even taught to be ashamed of pride. It is after all the first of the seven deadly sins. Nonetheless, I want to assert that it might be the key to building the future we all long for. The invisible yet opaque shadow of shame eclipses my (our) pride in what I am (we are) and what I (we) can become. 

I've worked hard to get to where I am, and I'm choosing to be proud of my effort and my hard-earned self. And I'm choosing to leverage my work as a host, facilitator and mediator to elicit the best of the people around me. I want to offer my greatest contribution to the future and I want to help other people do the same. Our collective work is to cobble these contributions into the tapestry of the irresistible future we all want to live in. We need to all look toward a world that we ache to be a part of, because we all know exactly the role we want to play.  

What do you want to contribute to the future that you dream of? 

I'll end with this quote from Martha Graham:
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.”

*Yes, I confirmed that this a very inclusive definition of man including gay, straight, queer, cisgendered, trans, old, young, all colors and nationalities, etc.

**I credit Vivian Batista of NAJANDA for reminding me of the power of the word "irresistible." 

A Voice I'm Taking Less Seriously

My last post on Peace, Love and Understanding concluded as follows:
"We can't force the world to change around us, so the place to start is within.
Sigh... It sounds like a lot of work, but I can't think of anything more important in the world today."

The idea that loving others is developed through our capacity to love ourselves seems like hard work. Truly, learning to unconditionally love ourselves may be the hardest thing we ever do. But what if it wasn't serious at least?

I was invited recently to reflect on a voice in my head that I want to take less seriously. In fact, this inquiry is coming at me from lots of angles these days, and I'm excited to share them all with you.

First I'll say that I love the question. I'm grateful to be released from the burden of trying to destroy the voices I don't want to accept, and it is illuminating to learn that I can't destroy the parts of myself that I don't like. It's just not possible. It also feels nice to be allowed to just laugh a bit at them. After all I really am into the idea of holding things lightly.

The voice that I immediately knew to take less seriously is the one that keeps asking, Am I doing this right? Is this what I'm supposed to be doing? This voice wants me to doubt my career, my relationships, my hobbies, my recreational time, the food I eat and the hours I sleep. It's a voice that is always there, eager to remind me that I'm not doing it (life) good enough, that I must endlessly try harder, that I should stop dreaming and that I better "get with the program," whatever that is. 

I giggle a bit at the questions and assertions of this voice. I am, after all, increasingly convinced that there is no one right way to be. I'm quite sure that nothing is supposed to happen. I believe that life is a dynamic evolving event unfolding in an infinite universe. It seems that trying to put the elements of ourselves, of life, into a boxes that are neatly labeled with tags that read "good" or "bad" or "right" or "wrong" or "normal" or "weird" or "loveable" or "to be hated" or "serious" or "frivolous" is a fool's errand, misguided and impossible.

Wait! Really? 

And the lesson comes again...
I recently rediscovered in Beyond Theology Alan Watts' assertion that his favorite metaphysical questions are based on everyday questions: "Who do you think you are? Who started this? Where are we going? Where are we going to put it? Who's going to clean up? Where do I come in? Where am I? What's up? Who's who? Do you mean it? Where do we get off? Are you there? But there seems to be one that must be asked right at the beginning, Is it serious?" (emphasis added)

Right! Is it serious? How did we get that idea? If we look at the unbridled opulence of the world around us, flowers blooming, stars exploding, multiple orgasms and more music than we could ever hear, it becomes clear that this life thing isn't a wholly serious endeavor. Furthermore, it is often true that our choices to take take life seriously tend to be the cause of our suffering, whether it be addiction, abuse, or warfare. And these things are super serious, and we need to do something about them. And it's a desperate situation. It seems like I need to take the serious problems seriously, and I especially need to get serious with myself so I can do more, get into gear, and make some things happen. (deep breath) 

So what gives?  

One framing I heard recently invited me to consider the part of myself that I'm struggling with as a beautiful monster. This beautiful monster lives inside of me and always will. The trick is that if I hate it or try to suppress it, it merely finds another way to assert itself. It feels wounded and It grows even stronger and more viscous. Like a rescue dog, the only way to heal it is to see it, be patient and embrace it. This is like the shadow work of jungian psychology. Learning to be with my beautiful monsters is where my spiritual journey lies. That's the lifetime project I've been given. I can't suppress or oppress my shadow out of existence. I need to show that I can have compassion for it, that I understand why it's there and appreciate that it cares for me (in its own crazy way).
There is a line from a song by East Forest that I feel is relevant here, "I didn't transcend my ego. We became partners. We became teammates." I've included the song's video at the end of this post. 

It is often easier for me to love the differences and the hard things in others. That's why I do the work I do. But I keep learning that I'm most effective when I can turn that same love back at myself.

Here is the work that I'm choosing to face is more diligence and less seriousness: as I strive to be a positive influence in the world, I am also learning that my flaws are not something to fix, they are something to embrace. I'm learning to laugh with my monsters, appreciating their familiarity, and I'm learning to soften the "Oh shit! Not this again!" reaction. 
I'm asking "What would it take to accept myself just as I am?"  "What would it look like if I could love and care for myself in the same way I do for others?" Or even, "What would it take for me to treat my others and myself as I would treat the ones I love." 

In all of this, I keep coming back to the importance of considering the motivation behind my actions and reactions. I believe that the quality we approach the questions of life directly affects the quality of how we experience them and the quality of the outcome.
With that in mind, this is the question I want to keep asking: Is the goal of this situation to encourage happiness and prosperity for myself and others? or Is the motivation here simply to not "fail" the very serious and terrifying test of life? 

When I work with a motivation of love the outcome always seems to be better than when I work from a place fear.


If you want to reflect further on the value of taking life less seriously, I highly recommend this excerpt from Daniele Bolelli's course on Taoism entitled "The Tao is the Shit." 

Also please enjoy this song by East Forest, entitled "Grandmothersphere." The lyrics really speak to some of the questions and thoughts that I discuss above. It comes from the album Love Bomb, which is beautiful across the board.

 

 

What's so Scary about Peace, Love and Understanding?

A close friend recently shared with me this excerpt of a Brain Pickings review of Thich Nhat Hanh's book How to Love. I found it very moving, so I've chosen to share it with you. You can find my musings about it below: 

"At the heart of Nhat Hanh’s teachings is the idea that “understanding is love’s other name” — that to love another means to fully understand his or her suffering. (“Suffering” sounds rather dramatic, but in Buddhism it refers to any source of profound dissatisfaction — be it physical or psycho-emotional or spiritual.) Understanding, after all, is what everybody needs — but even if we grasp this on a theoretical level, we habitually get too caught in the smallness of our fixations to be able to offer such expansive understanding. He illustrates this mismatch of scales with an apt metaphor:

"If you pour a handful of salt into a cup of water, the water becomes undrinkable. But if you pour the salt into a river, people can continue to draw the water to cook, wash, and drink. The river is immense, and it has the capacity to receive, embrace, and transform. When our hearts are small, our understanding and compassion are limited, and we suffer. We can’t accept or tolerate others and their shortcomings, and we demand that they change. But when our hearts expand, these same things don’t make us suffer anymore. We have a lot of understanding and compassion and can embrace others. We accept others as they are, and then they have a chance to transform."

"The question then becomes how to grow our own hearts, which begins with a commitment to understand and bear witness to our own suffering:

When we feed and support our own happiness, we are nourishing our ability to love. That’s why to love means to learn the art of nourishing our happiness.

Understanding someone’s suffering is the best gift you can give another person. Understanding is love’s other name. If you don’t understand, you can’t love.""

It's scary to talk about peace, love and understanding in a time when it's cool to marginalize and despise those with whom we disagree. These days almost everyone seems to have someone or some group that it's cool for them to hate or be afraid of, and I understand where that's coming from. The world is scary and unpredictable these days. The future doesn't look bright. In fact, if we project our current patterns into the future, it looks downright terrifying. That seems to me to be a clarion call to all of us to transform the way we do things, and that is why I love what Thich Nhat Hanh offers us here. It is a path towards transformation and it begins with us. 

I really just want to flag two aspects of this. On one hand, our capacity to love transforms ourselves and second. On the other hand, it allows others to transform.

On the first point, Lauren Rosenfeld beautifully explains, "Sometimes we stubbornly refuse to understand because we believe that understanding is a zero sum game: if I reach out to understand you, I must give up a part of my self that I am clinging to as if it were a raft on turbulent river of life. But, in reaching out to understand, what I truly give up is self certainty, which is ego driven and illusory. I let go of the raft of self certainty and find that the flow of the river of life will carry me and you together. Understanding is infinitely expansive and illuminating -- and in this way -- as [Thich Nhat Hanh] explains -- it is equivalent to love: it casts light on our true nature, our interconnectedness, our infinite and infinitely expansive being." 

The truth is that opening up to a world full of diverse perspectives takes courage. In the process of realizing that we don't have the only right way of seeing the world, we become able to hold grasp everything a little more lightly. Primarily this releases us from the suffering inherent in trying to control the flow of life. It also allows us open up to our own selves, because that desire to destroy what we don't like, instead of embracing and understanding it, is easily turned against our own selves. Finally, when we let go the idea of clinging to right or wrong ways to do things, then we become able to grow and evolve. Life becomes a process of potentially continual improvement and we create the space for ongoing transformation. 

If we can learn to love and understand ourselves, then we can also learn to love and understand others, and the effect is the same. By understanding and loving others, we give them permission to change. This is best understood by considering the opposite strategy: If we hate someone for the way we see them, their natural reaction is to defend that way of being, to try to justify it, and that can only lead to deeper entrenchment. Even if they do decide to change, they wouldn't want us to know and may resist their own evolution as a matter of principle. No one wants to give credit to someone who has treated them poorly. If, on the other hand, we want to see someone change, the best thing we can do is to love them, to wish the best for them, to understand what's important to them. It is only when one feels safe and held that they can bring their best self to the table. 

And so we come full circle. It seems nearly impossible to learn to love our various enemies, but it is also totally necessary if we want to create a better world. We can't force the world to change around us, so the place to start is within.

Sigh... It sounds like a lot of work, but I can't think of anything more important in the world today.

The Deal with Fractals... Finally

Okay, I feel like I'm finally ready to weigh in on the deal with fractals. What follows is a very brief primer on fractals and an introduction to how I see them as a metaphor for the human experience.

Fractals are a mathematical discovery. They were discovered in the early 1980s by Benoit Mandelbrot while he was working at IBM on some of the first computers. He was playing with some old math problems that a Frenchman named Gaston Julia had tried working out with pencil. With the processing power of computers, however, Mandelbrot was able to find a marvelous world. The discovery that unfolded has been called Mandelbrot set, and I've included a series of images of the Mandelbrot set below so that you can also marvel at their beauty. (If you want to nerd out more on fractals I'll include some resources at the bottom of the post.)

The real discovery of fractals, however, is that once you understand how they are formed, you begin realize that they seem to be fundamental to how nature and the universe is formed. Once you see them, you see them everywhere. To understand this, you should know what a fractal is. There are mathematical definitions that use words like "integer" and "hausdorff dimension." (Again, go to the end of the post for the nerd fest.) The definition that I like to use has three parts and is as follows:

  1. Fractals are self-similar at all scales. This means that the small parts look similar to the larger parts which look similar to whole. 
  2. Fractals are made from the repetition of processes (recursive algorithms). To create a fractal you begin with an initial condition, you apply a process which creates a new condition, then you apply the process to that new condition and repeat. 
  3. Fractals can lead to infinite complexity. As the formation process is repeated, the complexity increases. The system quickly goes beyond our capacity to comprehend. Nonetheless, the self-similarity continues and the repeated process is maintains its simplicity.  

The best natural example of a fractal is a tree.

  1. The small branches look similar to the larger branches and all the branches look similar to the tree as a whole.
  2. The process for building a tree is to sprout new leaves, branch and move towards the light, drop leaves, rest, and repeat. 
  3. A tree that is allowed to continue growing through the simple process will increase in complexity while maintaining its self similarity. Before the advent of fractal geometry, the mathematical description of a tree was nearly impossible.
 

The underlying proposal of the Fractal Friends project is that humanity, guided by culture at all scales, is also a fractal. This is especially true when we look at our choices, behavior and how we experience conflict. 

  1. Our behavior (the questions we face and the choices we make) are self-similar at all scales. We find similar questions and choices in our own psyches, as we do in our interpersonal relationships. The questions and choices we face as groups ranging from families and organizations to countries and humanity as a whole also have that same self-similar quality.
  2. The process we follow is to face a decision, to assess the right or wrong response based on our cultural paradigm (which tends to be guided by a choice of how to balance our individual or our group's needs (agency/fear/power) and our need to be part of a collective with other individuals or groups (comunion/limits/love)). Each choice brings us to a new situation and we are then faced with a new decision, so the process repeats. 
  3. As we become increasingly interconnected as a global society the choices we face become increasingly complex. Our sense of self, of "us," grows as we consider our own needs, those of our community, those of our nation and those of our species and eventually all sentient beings. This is also balanced by an increasing understanding of the other, which similarly ranges from the parts of ourselves that we don't want to accept, to the individuals in our life, to the organizations and companies that threaten our communities, to other nations & cultures nearby and across the world, all the way up to the existential threats to life ranging from asteroids to nuclear weapons. As we make more decisions we will always tend to greater complexity, but the self-similarity of our lives at all scales will continue, just as the choices and the decisions will always be dance between fear and love. 

It is in that spirit that I bring Fractal Friends the podcast and the blog to the world. I firmly believe that we are all facing the same questions and challenges in life. I want to share the far off branches of the tree of life that we are part of. It feels important for us to continue growing in our sense of who we are and who everyone else is. The journey both inwards and outwards seems to be infinite, and it has to be balanced. 

As a way to reflect on this whole idea, I offer a series of fractal images that I feel function as a decent metaphor for life as I see it. To continue the metaphors above, I like to imagine that the edge between black and color represents our choices in life. The choice is there, but as we zoom in closer and closer we realize that there is no hope of finding a definitive edge between right and wrong. If that idea is too far out, I also offer these images as something beautiful and fun to look at. 

This is called Mandelbrot Set. The following images are all the same image. Each consecutive image is a zoomed in version of the previous. It goes on forever, but I've limited it to just a few, because I don't want to blow anyone's mind just yet. For a deep zoom check this out or google "mandelbrot zoom." 

 
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Fractal nerd time:

Fractals are mathematically defined as objects that exist between dimensions. They are entities that have a Hausdorff dimension that is not an integer. They can be lines that behave like planes or lines that behave like dots. They are a way of fitting infinite detail into finite spaces. For some fun and simple fractal examples I suggest that you look at the Cantor Set, Sierpinsky Triangle and the Koch Curve. 

If you want to explore the Mandelbrot set on your own consider downloading this app for your phone: Fast Fractal or this software for your computer: XaoS.

If you want to go deep into studying fractals I suggest this course on Fractals and Scaling offered at Complexity Explorer.

The Fractal Foundation also has some excellent resources. Their CEO Jonathan Wolfe also have a great TEDx Talk here.

Here is a TED talk with Benoit Mandelbrot himself.

Also Arthur C Clarke's documentary on fractals from 1995 called Colors of Infinity is a classic.

Thank you for your interest in this. If this is a topic that you are into I hope that you contact me. 

I Came with a Treehouse Full of Flowers

When I was a kid in 2nd grade we had a teacher who would have us draw pictures and gift them to an assigned buddy in our classroom. I would always draw a scene with a tree. It would look like a green cloud balanced on top of a brown shaft sticking out of a semi-circle hill. Flowers would bloom out of the ground, and m-shaped birds would fly into the distance the light blue sky. 

The other boys in my class would regularly give me drawings of intricate war scenes drawn in pencil on lined paper. Stick figures, planes and tanks would be aiming dashed lines of bullets at one another. I would receive these gifts of crumbling buildings and black and white carnage, and I would accept and treasure them as the gifts that they were. 

One day I remember finding my tree in the waste basket by the door of the classroom. I ached at the injustice. My idyllic nature scene in the trash and the war scene tucked carefully into my Trapper Keeper.  

I share this because now, thirty years later, I seem to be engaging in the same effort. I'm trying to point towards a vision for the world that can inspire all of us, and the world keeps responding with "Yes, but..." They point to war, injustice, hatred and environmental destruction. This focus on intractable problems seems to hold for people across the political spectrum. It's seems universally cool to highlight hopelessness and to scapegoat someone (the racists or the other races, the government or the people, the young or the old, technology or tradition) for our social problems. So few people seem to even be interested in taking what we have and using it to build a new vision and find a new direction. Or they've given up on dreaming. 

This a roundabout way to admit that I'm afraid that I'm faking it. I'm terrified that I might be making it all up. What if everyone is right? 

The vision that I have for a society where we recognize our common humanity is a dream, a fantasy. My proposal that we're all in this together seems to be a reality that I've constructed in my head. I worry that it may only exist here inside of my head, because the world around me is so eager to push back against it, to doubt its validity and/or to prove it wrong.

A Cloud Cult song called "Armor and Calla Lilies" comes to mind. One verse sings, "I came to them with a treehouse full of flowers, and they came to me with shotguns and bulldozers. We're made of armor and calla lilies, and they're closing in so fast around us."

It feels almost insane to keep clamoring for peace in a world that people want to organize into a battle of good vs. evil, but I don't feel like I have a choice. I'm guided by the chorus of the song:

"So we'll dance all day on the shooting range and well make love all night while the bombs fall."

And so against all odds I choose to continue this effort. I'm going to keep amplifying my voice. I've picked up the microphone and going to keep finding and sharing inspiring voices. I've picked up the paint brush and I'm going to continue to make trees. I've picked up the ukulele and I'm learning to sing of the treehouse I offer to the world. And I'm going to keep dancing and making love, and I welcome y'all to join me in the dream. 

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Divided Politics in the United States

I've been reluctant to take on this theme, but I feel emboldened by the recent primary results in New Hampshire. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have come to the lead in their respective parties. This is not a mistake. Despite the profound differences in the two candidates and the perceived differences between liberals and conservatives, there is a common thread that cuts across the political spectrum: Something is not quite right in America.

Our political system is corrupted. The mainstream candidates are clearly beholden to corporations and lobbyists, and they are out of touch with the lives of the average citizen. It is for this reason that people are beginning to clamor for a serious change in our political system. The concept of a political revolution has become part of our day-to-day conversations. 

I too have serious concerns about the state of U.S. American politics. While living abroad over many years I watched in horror and fascination as the United States continues to lose its credibility on the international stage. The problem is not Obama, nor our endless and ineffective war on terrorism. The problem is that we are lost in our political divisions and have lost sight of the big picture. We seem to be self-dividing and self-conquering ourselves. We have undermined our capacity to be a force for good in the world. 

Sometimes I like to imagine the countries of the world as individuals hanging out in a large room. In this place some countries are working out and getting strong. Some countries are studying everything they can get their hands on. Some are sickly and wounded. Some are self-repressed and exhausted. Some countries are teaming up with others and making grand plans for their collective futures. The United States is in the corner wearing a tattered king costume while mumbling to itself about how great it is, its schizophrenic mind torn into two.  

Ken Cloke (again) says that when the ship is sinking it doesn't matter what side of the boat you're on. I can't think of another place where it is more relevant for us to realize that we are all in this together. The United States is too big and powerful to be having this kind of crisis. It is simply dangerous for us to be divided as we are. We need to stop scapegoating others inside and outside our country for our problems. We need to take responsibility for our own future. We can either learn to work together and make some deep changes in our political system, or I'm afraid our days are numbered and the fall will not be pretty.

So as usual, I'll end with an appeal... As this political circus continues to unfold, let's try to notice not just our differences, but also let's try to embrace the spirit of change and revolution that is so alive in our country. We need a new way of being in the world, one that's better for U.S. citizens, for the rest of the world and for our planet. And we can only do it if we work together. 


For those interested in a non-partisan vision for radically changing politics, I encourage them to to check out Rebooting Democracy: A Citizen's Guide to Reinventing Politics by Manuel Arriaga. Here is a pdf of the first chapters. Just reading "10 reasons why politicians fail to represent us (and always will)" is a powerful experience. The link to the website is here

For those who feel that there is no way for liberals and conservatives to understand each other and work together, I encourage them to listen to this TED talk by Jonathan Haidt about the moral roots of liberals and conservatives.

Miracle of Communication

Seanan, a friend of mine who does Sheng Xiao (Chinese Zodiac) readings just told me a nugget of wisdom that he's learned over the years: There are a million paths and a million doors to a single room. It's nearly impossible for any to explain to the others how they got there.

I wanted to share this because it reminds me of something I often find myself pondering with people in conflict: Every successful communication is a miracle. We should not be surprised when it doesn't work. 

In order to effectively communicate to another person we must,

  1. know what we want to say;
  2. convert the thought into coded language (which was developed by strangers over millennia);  
  3. convert the language into a complex set of neuronal electrical signals;
  4. convert the electrical signals into throat vibrations;
  5. which then compress the air and travel through space and/or a digital medium;
  6. and then cause tiny ear bones to vibrate.
  7. The ear bone vibrations are then converted into electrical signals; 
  8. which the second brain then interprets and attempts to understand based on its own configuration. 

All of that is independent of the fact that we each come from infinitely distinct life journeys - ones that are the product of our unique ancestry, unique experiences and unique worldviews. 

So the next time that you find yourself in a room with someone, try to have patience if you don't immediately understand where they are coming from or how they got there.

From Power and Rights to Interests... a Boy Can Dream

To significantly expand our global mediation capacity and move beyond “us versus them” conflicts, we need to recognize that there is no “them” anymore, there is only “us.” The “them” we create is only the flip side of our own fear, poor communications, primitive conflict resolution skills, failures of collaboration, accumulated pain and disappointment flowing from our reliance on militaristic power- and legalistic right-based interactions, leading to a loss of capacity for empathy and compassion, and a lack of commitment to strengthen interest-based conflict resolution capacity with our opponents.
— Kenneth Cloke, "Strengthening the United Nations: Toward a 'Conflict Revolution;'" Unpublished

The above quotation comes from an article that Ken shared with me recently and which I felt compelled to repeat here, because I feel like it captures the essence of what Fractal Friends the blog and the podcast are about: "There is no 'them' anymore, there is only 'us.'" 

I want to again express my gratitude for the role that Ken Cloke has played in the field of mediation and in my own life. His book Conflict Revolution: Mediating Evil, War, Injustice and Terrorism prompted some colleagues of mine at the Dispute Resolution Center of King County to start a book group, which is the true starting point of my journey as a conflict resolution professional. It prompted me to join Mediators Beyond Borders, and it has inspired me to begin to dream about how the humble practice of mediation can play a role in resolving the world's great conflicts. It sent me off tilting at windmills and it is that odyssey that eventually brought me to my fractal theory of conflict. So, thanks Ken.

Today, however, I want to touch upon a concept that is hidden in the above quotation that I believe to be fundamental to understanding the nature of conflict: Power, Rights and Interests.

These ideas describe the evolution of humanity's approaches to resolving conflict across history. As I understand it, this understanding of conflict was developed and popularized by Fisher, Ury and Patton in their seminal book on mediation, negotiation and conflict resolution: Getting to Yes. 

The concept is that humanity has evolved through three ways of managing conflict throughout its history. All three are still in play, but there is also a clear progression across time. I'll add that this progression seems to occur both at the level of the collective and within individuals. The earliest form of resolving conflicts is based on power. In a power-based approach to conflict, the most powerful group or individual wins. One can imagine fighting or warfare. Power can take on many forms ranging from hierarchical and social influence to capacity for physical and technical force. Using power to resolve conflicts always results in a winner and a loser, so it is not sustainable. The loser will usually try to find a way to get revenge and this can lead to long cycles of conflict.

Power is/was eventually replaced by systems based on rights. A rights-based system allows the possibility of everyone, regardless of demographic details to have equal access to justice. That's the idea at least. Under such a system, conflict is meant to be resolved by consulting a set of rules that are applied universally to everyone, regardless of their status. Laws are an amazing invention. I like to think of them as the guardrails of society. They help us avoid accidentally falling into the abyss. The challenge of a rights-based approach is multifaceted. To begin with, laws tend to be made by people with power. Furthermore, one set of rules for everyone doesn't match the nuance of the human experience, no matter how much we work to refine them. Finally, a rights-based approach also depends on the winner-loser binary.

The newest way for humans to resolve conflicts is based on interests. It was born out a desire to find an alternative to legal processes that damage relationships, and it incorporates ancient communication technologies, modern psychology and contemporary negotiation techniques. An interest-based approach to conflict focuses on finding solutions that are rooted in what is needed for specific people, in a specific context, at a specific time. This level of detail allows for the creation of solutions that are able to address the interests of those involved. Conflict tends to arise because there is a perception that our positions are mutually incompatible. When we dive down to discover the underlying interests and needs, however, we find that what we really need/desire is universal and recognizable. They become a basis for relating to those we are in conflict with and allow us to find creative solutions for resolving conflicts. Tapping into the underlying interests is the basis of modern mediation and conflict resolution. (Look here for a list of universal human needs as developed by those working in the field of Nonviolent Communication.)

In my opinion, taking an interest-based approach to resolving conflict has two main problems and one elegant and complex solution. First, it requires people to want to resolve their conflicts in a way that benefits everyone who is involved. Secondly, it is time and labor intensive, because it is case specific and it takes effort and skill to get people to discover their true needs, to communicate them to others and to explore creative and feasible solutions. Nonetheless, it works and is totally possible. The aforementioned solution is to change the culture of how we respond conflict. I believe that if we are to prosper as a species, we have one generation to integrate and institutionalize mediation and interest-based thinking into our global culture. This means that the mediation profession and the process of finding mutually agreeable solutions become part of our day-to-day lives and language. I know that changing mental models across culture may be the most difficult task around, but a boy can dream. Let's keep evolving please.

The Podcast is Live!!! Some reflections...

The idea for this podcast was born in January of last year. At the time I was in a pretty low place. My dream job in Ecuador was not panning out as I had hoped. I had a mean boss and I felt isolated and alone in an unfamiliar country and culture. It felt as though I had my wings clipped. I was forced to rely on myself, my meditation practice and my own resilience, developed over many years of living and working abroad. Fortunately, and serendipitously, at the same time I had discovered and was listening pretty regularly to the Duncan Trussell Family Hour and Chris Ryan's Tangentially Speaking. Duncan's irreverent and powerful dharma teachings and Chris' philosophy of freedom and self-expression were an inspiration for me. These guys really kept things in perspective. I found great comfort in the long conversations they had with the truly amazing people on their podcasts.

Then, on my birthday, I went out with my co-workers, and for the first time I had a chance to talk about who I was and how I saw the world beyond the smothering context of my job. They were surprised by all the things that the strange U.S. American working with them (I) had to say. I rediscovered my voice and realized that I had a lot to share, a lot that I needed to share. I also realized that the amazing people around me had great things to share. That was when the idea of Fractal Friends the podcast was born. 

I gathered the equipment and software and I started dreaming.

The final step in getting this off of the ground was the idea of letting go of outcome. As soon as I realized that I didn't have to know what would be the result of project I found the capacity to go all in. I started this blog right away and now I finally have gotten the podcast together to share with the world. I have no idea how this will play out, and that is the only way I'm able to do this. 

Thank you to everyone for the support that has gotten me this far in life and this project. I hope to meet many new people along the way. Please contact me if you or someone you know really needs to be a guest on the show (especially Duncan Trussell or Chris Ryan). In the meantime, let's have some fun, because we really don't know what's going to happen. 

The podcast will be available on a different website: fractalfriends.us Where the ".us" stands for all of us, the fractal friends... life. It is also available on iTunes and Soundcloud.

New stories ...of an evolved society

I was reading a book this evening that has been touching me deeply lately. It is called The Five Things We Cannot Change... and the Happiness we Find by Embracing Them. It's written by David Richo. I'm currently reading the chapter about the 3rd thing we cannot change: "life is not always fair."
Richo posits that when we are treated unfairly, we are faced with a choice between revenge and reconciliation. Our homo sapien default setting is to respond with retaliation. With a spiritual practice, however, we can learn to overcome that impulse. He goes on to say that, "In an evolved society, animated by spiritual consciousness, the desire for retribution is replaced by the desire for restoration."(p. 37) He goes on to list some features of the "precivilized world of revenge" and the "new... smaller world of forgiving and restorative love." The following is a shortened version of his list

  • Retribution aims at punishing the evildoer as evil. Restoration moves toward seeking to heal the ignorance of the "evildoer."
  • Retribution aims at satisfying society's need for revenge. Restoration moves toward harmony.
  • Retribution aims at getting even. Restoration moves toward caring that a fallen brother or sister find redemption.
  • Retribution aims at getting rid of a disturbing and dangerous presence. Restoration moves toward correcting and then reincluding.
  • Retribution aims at preserving the historical style of dealing with injustice (an eye for an eye). Restoration moves toward finding an exciting and more humanitarian solution to injustice.
  • Retribution aims at [the] end of [a] story. Restoration moves toward [the] beginning of a dialogue.
    (pg. 37-38) [1] 

This final point hit me real hard. It also reminded me of a conversation that I was having just last night with writer and creative coach Laurie Wagner. She was telling me about the concept of new stories vs. old stories. All of it seems so relevant to what this blog is about. I needed to share it all here with you. 

Laurie explains the concept, which she learned from Deena Metzger

"The old paradigm of good guy / bad guy is dead. We can’t learn anything from that. Finding a 'bad guy' just reinforces our fears. What a distraction. Let’s find the bad guy - and then we eradicate the BAD because we’re GOOD. But this focus on the enemy, the bad guy, it never gets to the deeper issue, which is, 'How did we find ourselves in this situation?' 
Life is a dynamic and it doesn’t live as good/bad. So instead of looking at things good or bad - or characters or people or situations - we ask instead, 'how does this happen?' And if we can go down the rabbit hole a little and find the trail and the connecting parts - then we might learn something more interesting and maybe we can make change."

As I understand it, old stories are about good vs. evil, about a bad thing happening to a good person and trying to explain how it happened and how good triumphed over evil. They have the have classic story arcs, with the hero being victorious in the end when they have overcome adversity. New stories look at the core of the drama and ask "how did this happen?" The answer is a story fueled by nuance and an integration of the sacred and the utterly mundane. The conclusion is not a conclusion. It's open-ended.

What would it take for us to begin to let go of the stories that end? How do we start to tell the stories begin a dialogue?

[1] Richo, David. The Five Things We Cannot Change... and the Happiness we Find by Embracing Them. Boston & London: Shambala Publications, 2006.

Podcast Launch Coming Soon!!!

Hello Everyone,
I'm about to launch my new podcast, Fractal Friends. I have some amazing people lined up, and I can't wait to share this adventure with you. You're not going to want to miss any of the episodes, so...
Sign up for updates in the column over there on the right---->>>
Or sign up at the bottom of the page if you're using your phone right now.

Listen here to get a taste of what's coming:

In case you missed the blog post launching this whole project, you can find it here

Turning toward the light (a.k.a. The reason for the season)

Season's Greetings! Merry Christmas! Happy Solstice! Happy Hanukkah! Joyous Kwanza! and Happy New Year! I hope that everyone has been finding some degree of joy, rest and peace during this time of year. 

I simply wanted to reach out and touch on why humans have chosen throughout the centuries to mark this time of year: it is the nadir. We are at the darkest point, the closing of a phase. So why all the joy?

We celebrate, because we know that life is cyclical. This is the opportunity to celebrate that we know that things always get better. It is a time to celebrate birth, community, survival and light. The days will start to get longer now. The calendar will begin anew. And we all can rest assured in the knowledge that we have been through the darkness before, and we have prevailed every time. 

Most of the spiritual traditions have ceremonies in this season that revolve around light. My personal tradition is to light a candle at this time of year, reflect on what I am willing to leave behind and offer my wish for the world in the coming cycle. 

Regardless of your tradition, I invite everyone to take a moment to reflect on what it would take, even while in darkness, to trust that the light will return. How can you participate in that process?

Happy Cycle Everyone!

PS: I know this post is very northern hemisphere centric. I guess that is the nature of our calendar. Sorry about that. A mi me encantaría escuchar las perspectivas del hemisferio sur sobre este tema.

How to talk about ISIS...

I've been reluctant to jump into conversation about how to address ISIS and terrorism around the world. This weekend, however, I met someone who expressed the feeling that she just wanted to have some ideas about how to think and talk about it. So, in the spirit of creating a new conversation (see my introductory post), I'm going to offer up a new way to talk about this situation. 

The world has faced Islamic extremism a number of times throughout the last decades. The U.S. (and others) has regularly led a military response with the intention of using overwhelming firepower and high tech weapons, mixed with ad hoc justice systems to forcefully remove leaders and groups from power. As they claim "mission accomplished," they have also left a trail of destruction and broken families in their wake. This creates the conditions for extremists to easily recruit the afflicted people around them to bring the fight back to the west and locally and to avenge the deaths from before. As these retaliatory movements gain steam the U.S. rallies the war machine again, and the cycle continues. 

This article by Andrew Bacevich does a good job explaining why the strategy of ongoing war will not work concluding, "For a rich and powerful nation to conclude that it has no choice but to engage in quasi-permanent armed conflict in the far reaches of the planet represents the height of folly." He says that there must be a choice, so what is it?

Here is the new conversation that I propose: If we want to see a different outcome, we need to respond in a new way. This is a generational issue and we need to begin to see it that way. We need to begin to be a healing influence in the world. 

Yes, there are often serious immediate problems that need to be addressed. I won't ignore the fact that sometimes a military intervention is necessary to confront and suppress the most aggressive acts of violence, but these military interventions need to be framed in a new context. The use of force needs to be seen only a small step before the real work begins. The real work needs to be long term broad-based support for the rebuilding of the countries that are being destroyed by these wars. 

The message needs to be that the Syrians, the Iraqis, the Iranians, the Afghanis, et al. are our friends. Their dreams of peace for their families are the same as ours. The U.S. needs to use its influence to rally the world to support the health, education, and infrastructure in these countries. This support must come from a diverse community, be culturally relevant and respectful, and it must take a long-term perspective, addressing the already existing multi-generational trauma. This will be the hard work for the use, because it will require humility. We will have to face the fact that we don't have all the answers. We absolutely can't install our values, our culture, our political systems, etc. The arc of progress will need to be elicited from the actual communities that have been affected. 

In other words, the U.S. needs to stop being the primary recruiting agent for Islamist extremism. We need to figure out how to stop being the enemy that everyone loves to hate, and start leveraging our influence to be an undeniable force for good in the world. When an al Qaeda or ISIS or future terrorist group tries to rally people to join them in a new terrorist attack against the U.S. or elsewhere, the response should be "Wait, but why? Look at all the good they've done for me and my family and my country," not "Of course, all they have brought me is destruction death."  

If this feels outlandish, or utopian, remember that we've been in this cycle before. World War I created the conditions for World War II by leaving the Germans disgraced and destroyed. We broke that cycle with the Marshall Plan, where the U.S. took on the costs of supporting the rebuilding of the European countries broken by war. We simply need a new way of responding.