Building a Community of Wisdom

What are we working for?  What is the end of practice?

Some writers, like Buford or Rohr for instance, talk about two halves of life: the first half that seeks success, and the second half that seeks meaning or significance.

I was in middle school when Kung Fu came out.  The fighting got my attention, but it was the mastery and wisdom of the old men that filled my heart with longing.

It is mastery and wisdom I seek now.  I want to seek it in community with other seekers, not alone; much like the monastery in Kung Fu, only one that is in the world and not shut off from it.

Is there a community of “wise ones,” where one can go to be trained in the ways of mastery and wisdom?  Why am I even putting these two words “mastery” and “wisdom” together?

I suspect that the two somehow go together.  That wisdom somehow grows out of the discipline and focus required to pass the trials inevitably required for one to become a master of anything sufficiently difficult.

Does that mean that our community of wise ones should consist of practitioners of the same art?  It could, but I think it could also consist of masters of different arts; that one art could inform another of its own particular species of wisdom; or even masters of science with masters of religion, with masters of the arts.

What if you don’t know any masters to hang out with?  Is it enough to hang out with seekers of wisdom, or seekers of mastery?  How do we build a community of elders, of wisdom?

Could we build such a community ourselves?

Marriage as Practice

Marriage may be the most rewarding and most difficult relationship a person can experience.  This makes it an ideal place for transformational practice.

What makes marriage so unique is the nature of the commitment.  We go into marriage with the expectation that it is for life.  You might argue that is no longer true.  But it is true that most people believe they are making a “long term” commitment, at least on the order of buying a house.

Most of us go into marriage expecting to create a family.  We want to leave a legacy of ourselves to the world in the way of children, either by blood or by adoption.  And by so doing, we take on the mantle of responsibility for those lives.  We make an implicit covenant to love them, provide for them, socialize them, and raise them to be independent, productive adults.

My dad says you’re never done being a parent.

Marriage is an everyday practice.  Even when our spouse is away, the commitment is present with us.  Will we reach out and touch them?  Will we think kindly or critically of them?  Will we bless as they come through the door from work, or greet them with our own anger and frustration?  Will we bring our work home, or give our family our full attention?

But I think the hardest and most rewarding part of the marriage practice is vulnerability.  We’ve got so much riding on this one commitment.  What happens if I lose face?  What happens if I humiliate myself right there in front of my partner?

What’s the alternative?  What if you don’t talk about the one thing you think you need but aren’t getting?  What if you don’t help your spouse get that one thing she needs?  What if you express yourself in a way that is emotionally upsetting to your partner?

We have to find a way to talk with, and reveal ourselves each other.  We have to find a way to compromise, so that each person gets some of what they need and want.  This isn’t easy.  But so much is riding on it.  It takes practice.  It takes forgiveness, because inevitably you’re going to hurt each other.

But the reward is the web of connectedness, goodwill, and love that come from a successful marriage.

Apologies and Thanks

I’ve discovered that many of you have liked my posts, and that some of you have even taken the time to leave comments, all of which have gone unacknowledged by me.

Please forgive me.  I feel a deep sense of gratitude for your time and attention, and a deep sense of shame for having ignored them for so long.

I haven’t paid enough attention to the mechanics of blogging.  I kept seeing this stat for comments, approved, and spam, but couldn’t figure out who was doing the approving or spamming, or where the comments were going.

Then finally I went into the email I use for businesses, where I expect to get lots of unwanted email, to look for something from WordPress.  But when I typed in the search for WordPress, screen after screen of emails came up; emails looking for approval for comments, or a notice of being “liked.”

I’ve had the blinders on, totally focused on writing a post every day.  And I missed the opportunity to converse with you.

I’m committed to work through your emails, respond to your comments, and to read your blogs.  I pledge to set aside an hour each day to do just that.  But it’s going to take some time to get through them all.  So I hope you’ll be patient with me.

Thank you for reading my blog, for liking my posts, and especially for sharing your thoughts in the form of comments.  I will try to do better.

Transformative Power of Conversations

I believe in the transformative power of conversation.  My life is a testament to that power.  I am the sum of my conversations.

But transformative conversations don’t just happen.  Like any other skill it can be learned, but again, it takes practice.

The practice begins with seeking those who share your passions.  Shared passion makes good conversation.  Little or no passion makes small talk.

Ask questions that matter, and listen to the answers with your whole attention.

Trust the person you’re talking to, until they give you a good reason not to.

Reveal yourself to them.

Bring people with a shared passion together.

Learn how to share the conversational space.

Talk about your passion in the context of your faith.  How do they inform each other?  How do they inform the others in your group?

Allow those who think differently from you, whether about your passions or your faith, to deepen your perspective.  Try to think and feel from within their skin.  See the world through their eyes.

Wrestling with God is not enough.  We need to hear what he says in the mouths of others.  We need to wrestle with ideas in the context of the group, not to win an argument, but to gain understanding.

Wrestling turns to polishing.  We gain perspective, understanding, and self-awareness.  We are blessed by the conversation, and bless others in our turn.  We grow rich with ideas, depth of perception, and positive emotional connectedness.

Gradually you find yourself transformed, not by a brutal hammer and chisel, but through the slow and gentle washing of water by the word of God – through the mouth of a friend.

Optimal Conversation and Group Mitosis

How can we optimize the conversational experience of a group, and once the group gets too large, divide the group in such a way that the conversational quality of the two groups is maintained?

The quality of a conversation is directly proportional to the number of ideas presented and understood therein.

Ideas increase with both the number and diversity of participants.

Understanding requires dialectical inquiry, which in turn requires bandwidth.

I define bandwidth to be the number of minutes in one hour each person has to communicate her ideas to the others in the group in such a manner that each person has an equal opportunity to speak.  For example, a conversation between two people shares one channel of communication and each has thirty minutes of bandwidth.  A conversation between eight people shares 28 channels of communication and each person has about one minute of bandwidth.

When the group forms, members are familiarized with the ideas of talk dancing, bandwidth, and with the Occupy Wall Street Hand Signals.  The group is responsible for the conversational flow, and those who do not respect the bandwidth of others should expect to be called to order by the “wrap it up” hand signal from others in the group.

My own experience suggests the optimal group size to be about 8 people.  Eight people can have a lot of ideas.  More than 8 people in a group imply less than a minute of bandwidth for each person.  It’s hard to express an interesting idea in less than a minute.  By the time you get to twelve in a group there is less than thirty seconds of bandwidth available.

I would suggest that a group divide in two when it reaches about ten people, and certainly no more than twelve.  Let the group elect a ballot counter.  Then each person write down their own name together with four (if there are 10 in the group) or five (if twelve) others they would like in their group.  Then divide the groups so that everyone has at least one person they wanted in their group besides themselves.

If there are persons with less than five votes then there are those with more than five.  Pair off the ones with the most votes with those with the least.

Seeking Feedback

The feedback we can give ourselves is limited by our perspective.  The light of our own knowledge and understanding casts shadows that only the light from another consciousness can see into.

Even something as seemingly objective as “doing 21 pushups” might be seen differently in the eyes of a personal trainer than from our own perspective down on the floor counting them off.

Sometimes just getting a fresh pair of eyes to look at a problem, a process, or an impression of me can provide an immediate epiphany or insight.

So if we really want to improve our practice, we are going to want to seek out others to provide us with feedback on what we’re doing, hopefully from someone who has already mastered what we ourselves are trying to master.

Depending on the degree of technical expertise required this can be fairly hard to do.  Do we go to school, hire ourselves a teacher, or seek out a mentor?  Sometimes I find it more helpful to talk with another practitioner, some like myself who is on the practice path to mastery.

Particularly in the realm of interpersonal relationships, getting outside feedback is critical to improving our ability to listen, to speak, and to be empathic.  In fact, relating to others is a hard thing to practice alone.

When you ask for feedback, expect a bitter draft.  Others see our faults more readily than we do.  And people speak more readily of things negative than they do the positive.  Even so, accept it gratefully knowing you can improve your practice and your relationships thereby.

Don’t try to justify yourself, or take insult at faults found.  Remember that you asked for it, and that the critic has blessed with feedback as well as criticism.  Only let it reflect on your behavior and not on yourself.  If you’ve performed poorly, it is behavior that can be changed and improved; it does not mean you are a bad person.

The Social Creation and Transfer of Knowledge

Nothing for me has been more fecund of ideas or joy than merely sitting down with someone I trust to discuss ideas we both care about.

Are you looking for ideas?  Maybe it’s time to have a talk with a friend who shares your passions.

Even so, how hard it can be to pick up the phone to call someone who once blessed us with their conversation.  It’s just so much easier to continue moving in the direction we were going, than it is to pause and reflect with a friend.

Ironically perhaps, such conversations are particularly fertile when participants come at an idea from different points of view.  If we can listen to each other, and put aside our need to be right, then the conversation will begin to weave a beautiful dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and finally if we are patient, will at last give birth to synthesis; a new idea right before our eyes, unlooked for, surprising us all.

Too few times I’ve made notes from such conversations.  Boswell’s Life of Johnson was little more than a collection of such notes.  We accumulate possessions that clutter our lives with bother without collecting the true treasures that fall in our way.  We find a precious gem over coffee with a friend, and then lightly cast it aside when we’re done.

But I am learning.  God has been teaching me the true value of things, ideas, and people; and I have been listening.  The kingdom of heaven dwells within you, and between you.

Dealing with Toxicity in a Group

Have you ever been in a group where one person in particular was having a toxic affect on the rest?  Maybe that person is dominating the conversational flow, or perhaps radiates some toxic emotion like anger, or is a source of invidious gossip or backbiting.

What do you do?  Do you do anything?

If you don’t do anything, then your experience and quite possibly that of everyone else in the group is going to be degraded.  If the experience is bad enough, you may find the persons whose company you enjoy most are leaving the group.  If you take your concerns to others in the group, then your comments may make their way back to the person in question, but probably not in the way you intended.

A couple of scriptures may help us out here.  Proverbs 25:9, Debate your cause with your neighbor himself, and discover not a secret to another, and Matthew 18:15-17, 15“If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. 16But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. 17If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector. (New Living Translation)

This is admittedly a difficult thing to do, to confront the offending person with the things that are bothering you.  But in my experience it usually pays big dividends.  The trick for me is to write a letter first that tries to describe my issue without giving offense.  Then I’ll sleep on it for a night.  I may ask someone I trust to read it and give me their impression of the letter and the reaction it might provoke.  Then I’ll rewrite it if necessary.

After writing the letter I will share it with the person and ask if we can talk about it afterward.  If the person disagrees with me, or thinks I’m the problem, I’ll then ask for a third person in the group to weigh in on the issue.  Then lastly if there is still no resolution, I will bring it before the group and ask them to decide.  If the group decides against the person, and the person is unwilling to change, then I think you need to resort to ostracism in order to preserve the integrity of the group.

The Visitor

Have you ever received an unexpected letter or phone call from an old friend?  Or maybe gone to a high school or college reunion and renewed a connection that’s been severed for years?  How did that make you feel?  It makes me feel really good.

We can be the blessing at someone’s door, the invitation to take a walk, or to share a cup of coffee.  The simplest things in life often bring the most lasting pleasure, the most enduring sense of belonging, and the shortest road to happiness.  And perhaps are the most easily overlooked.

How hard is it to stay connected with that person whose company we have enjoyed when our propinquity is lost?  Have you ever started a new job only to lose touch with your former colleagues?  Or move to a new home only to lose touch with your old neighbors?  Or even accidentally meet someone you share some passion with and think, “Gee, I wish I would have found a way to stay in touch with him.”

The truth is, it takes courage and a willingness to be vulnerable to reach out to others in this way.  So if you make a practice of renewing old acquaintance, or asking for the phone number of someone whose conversation you have enjoyed, or visiting an acquaintance who is sick in the hospital, then not only will you be blessing both them and yourself by renewing those ties, you will also be strengthening your own character in the process.

You will grow your social network and theirs.  You will improve your emotional health and theirs.  You will be building social capital in your community and theirs.

Therapy as Practice

Yes I have a therapist; and fortunately so, because therapy has made my life a whole lot better, and made me a whole lot easier to live with.

But therapy is a practice?

What is practice anyway?  It’s a means to mastering some skill.  The skill I work on in therapy is self-awareness, and relating to others.

Therapy is my practice dojo for learning trust, vulnerability, and honesty.  Part of what makes therapy work is that you’re paying this person to keep your secrets, and if they don’t they can lose their license.  This enables you to look into the dark places of your soul, admit to yourself and your therapist they’re there, and begin to understand why.

Everything that walks in the light casts a shadow.  The only way to avoid casting a shadow is to walk in darkness.  Our shadow selves come from trying to find ways to cope with the world.  They are the part of ourselves we’d like to hide from the world, the part we are ashamed of, and the part we want to deny exists.

Embracing the shadow is embracing ourselves; it means accepting who we are.  Deny our shadow and deny our own self-acceptance.  Grace comes from that acceptance, and can lead not only to our own acceptance, but accepting our spouse, our children, our parents, and so on.  It’s a profoundly healing experience.

That’s a hard path to walk alone.  A good therapist can help us find that path to trust, vulnerability, and to honesty; a path that leads into our own darkness; but there is light and wholeness on the other side.