Searching for a Social Practice

What do I want from a social practice?  I want to broaden and deepen my circle of acquaintance.  Yet, we are all limited in the scope of our acquaintance.  I don’t really like to admit that to myself, but it’s true.

So let’s look at the first aim: to broaden my acquaintance. In the course of our lives, we will meet people who fall across our path.  Some will be interesting, some less so.  We can learn from all of them, but occasionally one will particularly attract our attention, or draw us in.  The conversation will be particularly interesting in terms of content and level of trust and vulnerability.  We want to pursue these people.  Write them into a list.  Keep track of the times we contact them.  Make notes of our conversation.

And we want to deepen our relationships.  What does this entail?  Well a deep relationship is based on trust and vulnerability.  It can’t be deep otherwise.

To build trust we have to be trustworthy.  We can’t betray a trust by telling tales out of school.  Moreover it requires being reliable, by doing what we say we’re going to do, and accomplishing the task in a timely manner.

A person has to feel safe before they will be willing to make themselves vulnerable.  I think trust comes before vulnerability.  We have to have already built trust before a person in going to bare their soul to us.

I think a person is more likely to be vulnerable with a listener than they are a talker.  We want to know we are being listened to, before we share the shadows of our soul.  We need emotional space.

A deep relationship is both encouraging and challenging.  We don’t humiliate each other with the other’s shame.  But we do challenge each other, “Hey, you said you wanted to write, so why aren’t you writing?”  We encourage each other to move forward, to face our fears, and to act in the face of them.

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.

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.

Practicing Sex

I believe that practicing sex is less about technique and equipment than it is about learning to be vulnerable, intimate, and tender with the one you love.

It’s paying attention to the little things, like taking the opportunity to give a nice long hug, or gently rubbing your loved one’s back, or giving a quiet touch as you walk by.  These touches make us feel valued and loved.

It’s about taking the time and effort to be romantic: giving a gift unlooked for, making a special dinner, or planning an adventure to some place or event you’ve never been before.

It’s about savoring your lovemaking with long lingering kisses, passionate embraces, and lots of gentle touching or massage.

Maybe the hardest thing about practicing sex is talking about what you want, or what you’re afraid of, or what you don’t like.  Something as simple as initiating sex, or refusing it, can make us feel extremely vulnerable.

You know it’s time to talk if you feel some resentment about your sex life.  Where does the resentment come from?  What is it you want that you’re not getting, or don’t want that you are?  How can you express that to the one you love in a way that is respectful and not resentful? 

These conversations are usually pretty difficult.  I need to find a way to get some distance from my emotions.  I may begin by writing a letter, and getting down on paper what I’m feeling.  Obviously I’m already feeling some resentment, so I want that letter to sit for at least a day before I edit it.  Then I’ll read it again and try to reword it in a way that is less resentful, more respectful, and uses language that I think my wife can hear. 

What you don’t want to do is provoke the same resentment in your loved one that you’re already feeling yourself.  That’s a recipe for an emotional conflagration, and maybe long term damage to your relationship.

Once I’m happy with the letter, I’ll give it to her and ask her if we can talk about it after she’s read it.  When we begin to talk, I try to breathe through the conversation, be aware of our emotional pressure, and back off if it gets too high.  But I keep trying to find a way to talk about it until we can come to a mutually satisfactory conclusion.

Four Steps toward a Social Practice

How do we describe the nature of an acquaintance?  I use four measures:

1)   propinquity,

2)   breadth and level of interest,

3)   level of trust,

4)   And level of vulnerability.

By propinquity I mean proximity or distance.  We are much more likely to be acquainted with those in close proximity to us than we are with those who are far away.  One way to improve an acquaintance is to shorten the distance between you.

The more interests we share with a person, or the greater our intensity of interest in a shared passion, the more we will be attracted to that person.  The more we cultivate those interests, the more we will have to talk about, and the more interesting will become our conversation.

Our level of trust in an acquaintance is indicative of our expectation of honesty and reliability from the other.  For trust to grow our actions must be consistent with our conversation and commitments.  We want to spend our time with people we trust.

Our level of vulnerability is the extent to which we are willing to reveal those parts of ourselves of which we are ashamed, or those parts which if injured in some way, could do us great harm.  Vulnerability allows us to bring to light those parts of ourselves hidden in darkness.  With a friend vulnerability can be transformative.  But if that vulnerability is betrayed, it can be shattering.  For vulnerability to grow between friends, what is shared in confidence must be treasured in the heart and protected from gossip.

A social practice then should seek to shorten distance between acquaintances, seek and cultivate those who share our interests, build trust, and encourage and protect our mutual vulnerability.