Laird's blog

Donald Walters: Dead at 86

 
Donald Walters—Swami Kriyananda—died peacefully last Sunday in Assisi, Italy. He was 86 and had lived a very full life. The image above was taken in a joyous moment last year.

Though I never met him, I have known of him for many years, first as the founder of Ananda Village in Nevada City CA, and then as the author of a slim volume he wrote in 1988: Intentional Communities: How to Start Them, and Why, which was notable because it advocated cooperative living without proselytizing for the spiritual path he loved.

It is extremely rare, in my experience, for a spiritual person to see that there are many paths that lead to good in the world and that it makes sense to support and ally oneself with others devoted to worthy principles even if they don't share the same spiritual guide, or even have one at all. Donald Walters was just such a man.

To be sure, he was a very spiritual man, and a devoted follower of Paramahansa Yogananda. Over the course of his life Walters established eight successful intentional communities (two in India, one in Italy, and five on the West Coast of the United States) and about 100 meditation and teaching centers around the world, all of which are based on devotion to the principles of Kriya yoga and the teachings of his guru.

The Campaign Is Dead; Long Live the Campaign!

We're in the final stretch of the FIC's Indiegogo campaign to raise $45,000—which represents half the money needed to construct our new office in Missouri. With only five days remaining of our 45-day crowdfunding campaign, it's time to face the music: the campaign is 90% over and we've only generated 10% of the needed funds. Barring a miracle—which I'm all in favor of, by the way—we're not going to reach our target by midnight Thursday, when the curtain falls on the Indiegogo campaign.

However, it's important to note that Jan 25 only marks the end of the Indiegogo campaign. Our need continues Thursday and so will the FIC Green Office Campaign. All the money raised so far—from 115 supporters and counting—will still be just as valuable next week, and we're not about to ship our oars just because we're no longer sailing under the Indiegogo flag.

In the next few days I'll be redoubling my efforts to reach out to friends, people I've helped as FIC's administrator, and groups I've worked with over the past 25 years, asking them to help us reach our goal. For the past quarter century the Fellowship's intrepid crew has rolled up its sleeves and labored tirelessly as:
o  Collector of up-to-date and accurate information about intentional communities, both in book form and online.
o  Purveyor of books and videos focused on cooperative living, right livelihood, sustainability, and group dynamics.
offering books, videos, and a cornucopia of online resources
o  Publisher of Communities magazine.
o  Creator of Art of Community gatherings, where participants can simultaneously get information about community living and a taste of it.

Distinguishing Spiritual Work from Group Work

Ma'ikwe and I are just coming off a facilitation training weekend at a Hare Krishna community that I'm going to bless with the pseudonymous moniker Dharma Village. While the hospitality and generosity we encountered at this well-established community were terrific, we found the group mired in deep mud. 

There are dozens of devotees living on the property. Despite being united in their acceptance of Swami Prabhupada as their spiritual teacher, they have been embroiled for years in disputes over the right way to follow his teachings. To some extent what's unfolded in the community mirrors struggles in the Hare Krishna movement worldwide. After Swami Prabhupada brought Krishna consciousness from India to the West in a prolific burst of proselytizing from 1963 to 1977, there has been considerable divergence about how best to continue the spirit of his work.

There are some who believe that Prabhupada was the last guru of the movement and the only teacher worthy of following; there are others who accept as gurus anyone recognized by ISKCON (the International Society of Krishna Consciousness), which was started by Prabhupada and blessed by him to carry on after his death in 1977, including the right to initiate other gurus; and there are those who accept Swami Tripurari as a guru in addition to Prabhupada, even though Tripurari is not recognized as a guru by ISKCON. The movement, just like the residents of Dharma Village, is in considerable disarray over who is a guru and who isn't.

Snow Day to Go Out

Most mornings I'm the last one to get their first cup of Sandhill coffee. Sometimes I miss the first pot all together. Not because I sleep so much, but because I often work past midnight—long after more sensible communitarians have danced a round or two with the Sandman. When I awoke
yesterday, sure enough everyone else was already in the kitchen, huddled around the coffee thermos, nattering away about the day ahead.

Two days ago the weather had turned rainy—alternating between drizzling and showering since the afternoon—and I felt fortunate to have safely completed a trip to Quincy IL (60 miles away) to accomplish marathon photocopying at the cheapest place around (I did over 8,000 impressions for $200, taking more than four hours to orchestrate, tying up two machines). That evening I happily collated and stapled my output from the copiers, glad that I didn't need to venture out into the bad weather any more. By the time I turned out the lights it was 1 am, and the outdoor temperatures were sliding toward freezing.   

In the morning, I could tell that something special was happening from
the excited timbre in the voices that floated into my bedroom from the
kitchen. Though I couldn't make out the words, something was in the air. 

It turned out that something was snow! Our first storm of the season was roaring across northeast Missouri, pushed by plenty of arctic wind. We got perhaps four inches of wet snow, sculpted into drifts of more than a foot at strategic points along our half mile of gravel access road.

What Sucks the Air Out of the Room

I was asked recently what can be done when a member of a consensus group reported dreading plenaries because there were frequently times when they "experience mind-numbing process that sucks the air out of the room." OK, that doesn't sound very good. As I contemplated what might contribute to that condition—and what the remedies might be—a number of things occurred to me. In fact, it got interesting enough that I thought I'd write about it…

o  Working Below Plenary Level
One of the big energy eaters for consensus groups is not being sufficiently disciplined about what's appropriate to handle at the whole group level. Lacking clarity about what's plenary worthy, I regularly encounter groups that inadvertently drift into discussing details that ought to have been handed over to managers or committees.

When groups are sloppy about this, and fail to delegate appropriately, members who are not interested in those details are trapped. If they attend the meetings at which this happens, they are forced to sit through conversations about what color to paint a wall, the menu for Thanksgiving dinner, or whether to buy Nantes or Danvers carrot seed for next year's garden. Shoot me now. If they don't attend the meetings (to avoid the mind-numbing conversations), then they're at risk of being accused of slacking and not sufficiently supporting the group. Some choice.

—The Remedy: It's important that the group has agreement about what kind of things should be discussed in plenary, so that agendas are drafted with that boundary in mind and facilitators know when to call people on coloring outside the lines. Further, there need to be clear mandates (and minutes) for handing off work to managers and committees, so that they'll know what they can decide on their own and when they'll need to return to the plenary for consultation.

o  Welcoming Passion

Crossing the Line

Ma'ikwe and I just completed a two-year facilitation training in the Midwest, and I want to share what a pair of the graduating students—Tony Sirna & Alyssa Martin from Dancing Rabbit— did during their last opportunity to do live facilitation under their teachers' umbrella.

The way the training program works, each weekend is hosted by an intentional community that provides free room and board for the class in exchange for outside facilitation on real issues explored in real meetings. (The pedagogical principle here is that students will learn faster facing live bullets, as it has a wonderful effect on focusing one's attention.)

Tony & Alyssa had been assigned to co-facilitate a two-and-a-half hour meeting on the topic of conflict, where they'd distilled the key questions (in consultation with an ad hoc committee from the host group established to shepherd this topic) to the following five questions:

Question #1) When is conflict affecting the group enough that it should be brought as a plenary agenda item?

Question #2) How should the facilitator handle conflict and emotion when it arises in the meeting?

Question #3) When does the group want to seek outside help on a conflict and how will that be handled?

Question #4) Can the group require a member to work on a conflict they're involved in?

Question #5) What happens if a conflict remains unresolved?

While that list was potent enough to keep us plenty busy in the meeting, the community subsequently added four more when they were presented the first five:

Question #6) What is the process and/or protocol for attempting to resolve conflict before it comes to plenary?

Question #7) How shall the community respond when a member goes through conflict resolution, appears to have worked though it, and then rubber bands into the same distress over the same issue?

Consensus Challenges: Knowing When to Accelerate & When to Brake

This is the
continuation of a blog series started June 7 in which I'm addressing a
number of issues in consensus. Today's topic is Knowing When to Accelerate & When to Brake.

I.
When do you know enough to act? [posted June 7]
II. Closing the deal [posted June 10]
III. Wordsmithing in plenary [posted June 16]
IV. Redirecting competition [posted June 23]
V. Bridging disparate views [posted July 5]
VI. Harvesting partial product [posted July 20]
VII. When to be formal [posted July 29]
VIII. Harnessing brainstorms [posted Aug 10]
IX. Coping with blocking energy [posted Aug 19]
X. Defining respect [posted Sept 3]

Full Court Press

Last Saturday we woke up the first serious frost of the fall. While it's gorgeous looking at how the ice crystals refract the low-angled morning sunlight into a kaleidoscope of rainbows off the grass, frost is a major event on the farm. It kills the sweet potatoes, basil, and hot peppers outright, and threatens the sorghum. The frost last Saturday meant all hands on deck.

• • •
At Sandhill Farm we make up to a third of our income from the sale of organic food, and sorghum syrup—a traditional specialty crop in the Midwest and South—is a whopping three-quarters of that. While it varies from year to year when the sorghum is ready, it generally falls in the three weeks from fall equinox to mid-October. Often enough, the first frost of the season also falls in that date range and it's a dance letting the crop fully mature (maximizing the yield of sweet syrup) versus getting it all harvested before it's frost damaged.

Fortunately, sorghum can take a mild frost without damage, and it general takes temperatures of 28 degrees or lower to be a problem. The first frost is rarely lower than about 30 degrees, in part because of all the leaves—still green because there hasn't been a frost yet—that will give up heat as they freeze. With sweet sorghum the critical part of the plant is the stalk, because it's the juice inside that we'll boil down to make the syrup. If it gets cold enough to freeze the stalk, the cell walls will burst and the juice will rapidly sour once it's exposed to oxygen in the ensuing thaw. The warmer the weather after the frost, the quicker the juice will spoil. 

Thus, when our farm crew suspected stalk damage Saturday morning, it was a race to get as much of the crop processed as possible before the juice soured. What had heretofore been an orderly, isn't-it-a-lovely-fall-look-at-those-beautiful-colors harvest season suddenly turned urgent. 

Consensus Challenges: Balancing Voices

This is the
continuation of a blog series started June 7 in which I'm addressing a
number of issues in consensus. Today's topic is Balancing Voices.

I. When do you know enough to act? [posted June 7]
II. Closing the deal [posted June 10]
III. Wordsmithing in plenary [posted June 16]
IV. Redirecting competition [posted June 23]
V. Bridging disparate views [posted July 5]
VI. Harvesting partial product [posted July 20]
VII. When to be formal [posted July 29]
VIII. Harnessing brainstorms [posted Aug 10]
IX. Coping with blocking energy [posted Aug 19]
X. Defining respect [posted Sept 3]
XI. Balancing voices
XII. Knowing when to accelerate and when to brake
XIII. Knowing when to labor and when to let go

Consensus Challenges: Coping with Blocking Energy

This is the
continuation of a blog series started June 7 in which I'm addressing a
number of issues in consensus. Today's topic is Coping with Blocking Energy.

I. When do you know enough to act? [posted June 7]
II. Closing the deal [posted June 10]
III. Wordsmithing in plenary [posted June 16]
IV. Redirecting competition [posted June 23]
V. Bridging disparate views [posted July 5]
VI. Harvesting partial product [posted July 20]
VII. When to be formal [posted July 29]
VIII. Harnessing brainstorms [posted Aug 10]
IX. Coping with blocking energy
X. Defining respect
XI. Balancing voices
XII. Knowing when to accelerate and when to brake
XIII. Knowing when to labor and when to let go
XIV. Accountability

The Geometry of Community

I was recently consulting with a forming group that's considering rehabbing a school to house an intentional community and they wanted my advice about optimum size and concentration. Although the school has five stories and they were open to the possibility of using the entire space for the community I advised against it—both because it gets proportionately harder to maintain group cohesion as the population increases, and because it gets geometrically harder to establish and maintain group identity as the number of floors increases. I suggested they try to contain the community on three floors.

While creating and sustaining community is mainly a social challenge, that doesn't mean that design and spatial relationships don't have something to say about the outcome.

For example, when community houses are clustered, the people tend to be more involved in each others' lives; when the housing is diffused, so are the social interactions (think about the relative isolation of people who live in the suburban sprawl of one house per acre—where you have to put on sun block in order to borrow a cup of sugar). If the houses are laid out in a circle, the differences are less pronounced. When the housing is strung out in a line, the end folks are simply not in the social flow as much as others and that affects relationships. If there's a common house and that's the epicenter of community action, then the key is how close a given house is from the common house—even if the common house is on the edge of the community.

To be clear, location is not destiny. It also makes a difference how much you hang out on your porch, attend potlucks, throw card parties, and/or have a reputation as a grouch who eats small children. In short, behavior is also a big factor. With a nod in that direction, today I want to focus on the predictable challenges associated with different physical layouts.

Consensus Challenges: When to Be Formal

This is the
continuation of a blog series started June 7 in which I'm addressing a
number of issues in consensus. Today's topic is When to Be Formal.

I. When do you know enough to act? [posted June 7]
II. Closing the deal [posted June 10]
III. Wordsmithing in plenary [posted June 16]
IV. Redirecting competition [posted June 23]
V. Bridging disparate views [posted July 5]
VI. Harvesting partial product [posted July 20]
VII. When to be formal
VIII. Harnessing brainstorms
IX. Coping with blocking energy
X. Defining respect
XI. Balancing voices
XII. Knowing when to accelerate and when to brake
XIII. Knowing when to labor and when to let go
XIV. Accountability

• • •
I'm not talking about tuxedos and evening gowns—I'm talking about how much to rely on structure and protocol. When to be firm, and when to be loose. How much formality should a group use in conducting business? It depends.

Consensus Challenges: When Do You Know Enough To Act?

I'm in northern California this weekend, conducting a facilitation training, and the teaching theme is consensus. Two weeks ago students were asked what aspects of consensus were most challenging for them to understand or deal with well, and I got lots of replies. Today I'm launching a blog series in which I'll attempt to address a number of the issues that the students identified:

I. When do you know enough to act?
II. Closing the deal
III. Wordsmithing in plenary
IV. Redirecting competition
V. Bridging disparate views
VI. Harvesting partial product
VII. When to be formal
VIII. Harnessing brainstorms
IX. Coping with blocking energy
X. Defining respect
XI. Balancing voices
XII. Knowing when to accelerate and when to brake
XIII. Knowing when to labor and when to let go

• • •
While it's easy to agree on the goal of gathering as much relevant information on an issue as possible before making a decision, it turns out to be surprisingly nuanced knowing when you have enough information to act. That is, at what point does the perceived cost of delay (in order to gather additional data) outweigh the risk of making a mistake in acting without it?

I figure you never know everything, so the question becomes when do you know enough? This is about risk assessment (the consequences of making a mistake because you acted precipitously) and also about where the group stands on the spectrum of risk averse (the world is a dangerous place) versus risk tolerant (the world is full of opportunity). What looks like a prudent action to the latter can appear as recklessness to the former; what appears as prudence to the former comes across as overprotective to the latter. There is no right answer or single best approach. The group will simply have to discern the balance point case by case.

The Art of Working with People Who Can't See the Long View

Ma'ikwe and I are immersed in a facilitation training in Missouri right now and the teaching theme this weekend is power and leadership. In that context, a question bubbled up about how to handle the dynamic where a select group of veteran members with above-average power have been asked to constitute a committee to tackle long-range planning and questions about the group's future—only to face a withering gauntlet of push back about underlying assumptions whenever the committee brings forward its work. Yuck!

The person painting this picture colored the folks who were pouring sand in the gears as tending to be newer members who self-identified as less powerful, and advocated for positions that came across as narrow and self-serving. Faced with that reality, how do you maintain equilibrium and grace? How do you not get jaded and reactive?

What a good question!

On the one hand, it's essential that there be an opening for the committee's work to be reviewed by the group and that there be room for questions and concerns. On the other, it's draining and demoralizing to face a steady diet of criticism and roadblocks en route to the promised land. I'm talking about the situation where there's more nervousness about misuse of power than appreciation for all the hard work being done, ostensibly on the group's behalf. It can be excruciating to have someone question your integrity when you thought you were being selfless.

In reflecting on this, it occurred to me that some of this dynamic may have nothing to do with power. Although that was the analysis given to me, there are other possible explanations. Let me start with those. For the purpose of this conversation I'll use the term "committee" to refer to any subgroup—including a single person who might be a manager—who has been authorized to do things on the group's behalf.

Transparency

Visiting the Dren

When I was in college, it was fashionable to shorten words to their last syllable. Whence, "za" for pizza; "zeeks" for physics; and "rents" for parents.

While only some of these back-end phrases caught on (blessedly), I'm recalling those days as I spend a week in Las Vegas, visiting my "dren" (my kids). In their presence, I inevitably drift into reverie about what I was doing when I was their age, or recalling my days as a rent with young kids—which mirrors where my son, Ceilee, is today.

Ceilee is fast approaching 31, which was my age when he was born. He has two children (my granddaughter Taivyn, and my grandson Connor) and it's a delight to spend a week with these two curious beings (of course, I get to go home on Tuesday—it's incomparably easier being grandparent).

My daughter, Jo, is 24-1/2, exactly the age I was back in 1974, when I got together with three friends to start Sandhill Farm. There are many milestones to remember.

I spent yesterday with Jo. Along with her partner, Peter, they hosted an eight-person Game Day that lasted from noon to midnight. Not counting a brief break for dinner (at the neighborhood Chipotle where Jo works), we indulged in an orgy of board games (which Ceilee's Mom, Annie, refers to as bored games). I played Hansa Teutonica (1x), Stone Age (2x), Resistance (2x), World Market (1x), plus Acquire (1x) as a nightcap. This afternoon, Jo & I moseyed back over to Ceilee & Tosca's where we managed a four-person game of Siedler: Cities & Knights before dinner. (I say "managed" because it takes a certain amount of logistical sophistication when you're playing a board game and simultaneously managing child care for a six-month old baby and a three-year-old recovering from bacterial infection—there were an "above-average" number of pauses to field what passes for crises among small children).

Getting a Feeling for Working Conflict

Years ago I was giving a Friday evening public presentation about conflict at an urban university. I had been invited by a forming community, with whom I was going to be working over the weekend. They were using the occasion of my being in town to drum up interest in their group, and the woman organizing the event had a clipboard on which she was diligently capturing the names and contact information of the folks she didn't know.

In the minutes before we got started, she approached one unknown young man from behind and tapped him lightly on his shoulder to get his attention, for the purpose of getting him to register on the clipboard. The man startled at her touch, turned around abruptly, and glared at her with intensity. In the spur of the moment, the woman decided that perhaps she didn't need his contact information that badly and chose to back away.

At this point, I have just described the entire history of interaction between these two people. If there were any words exchanged, it was less than a sentence each way. Shortly after the woman retreated to her seat, I began my presentation—blissfully unaware that there was a storm brewing in the audience.

Ninety minutes later I was in the home stretch of my presentation, explaining how everyone has the option to work on conflict unilaterally. While most of the time we prefer (naturally) to be met by the other player(s) in a good-faith attempt to resolve conflict, I was pointing out the possibility and potency of working solo when the door to joint work is closed.

It was at this juncture—only three minutes away (I thought) from ending the talk and inviting everyone to regather in a nearby reception for punch and cookies—that the young man became quite agitated and blurted out that it wasn't easy to work through distress all on one's one. Surprised by his comment, I slowed down and offered something like:

The Anaerobic Hazard of Unaddressed Distress

Today I'm starting an Integrative Facilitation training weekend in Oakland (weekend three of eight) and the teaching theme is conflict. It seems an auspicious occasion for making it my writing theme as well.

A significant fraction of my work as a process consultant is working with conflict—by which I mean the condition where there are at least two points of view and at least one person is experiencing non-trivial distress in relation to events. (Disagreements where no one's nose is out of joint are also interesting, but not nearly as tricky to navigate, so I'm concentrating just on the hard part here.)

The stakes are pretty high here. Our mainstream culture—the one nearly all of us grew up in—conditioned us to respond to conflict by fighting, submitting, suppressing, manipulating, or running away. As far as I can tell, this menu essentially goes back to Neanderthal days. One of the cornerstones of cooperative culture is that there has got to be a better way. The good news is that there is, but it's not necessarily easy to get there. The theory is not hard, the challenge is being able to respond differently in the heat of the moment.

This entry will be the opening of a series on the theme of conflict. Today I'm going to try to make the case for why the cost of not learning to effectively address upset is prohibitively high. I've come to the view that we simply can't afford to not learn to deal constructively with conflict, and I'm going to try to persuade you to my viewpoint.

Defusing the Powder Keg of Sexual Abuse

I recently received this inquiry from a person in a well-established community wrestling with the explosive issue of sexual abuse:

Our community has recently had an experience of having a sexual assault predator living here who was arrested on charges. We were completely caught off guard in regards to this endemic social issue entering our community. We’ve done lots of healing and brought in a sexual assault prevention educator—all of which has been good. Now we’re at a crossroads, needing to make decisions about how to be responsible gatekeepers and guardians of our community. In other words, what proactive prevention do we put in place? I’m curious if you have had any experience with communities setting agreements for proactive prevention? And what have other communities done to provide a forum for that “uh-oh”/gut feeling that someone isn’t a good fit (could be around this issue or anything, really)?

This is a tough issue, mainly because it brings into play several complex challenges all at the same time:
o A wide range of societal views about what constitutes healthy sexuality
o Widespread disagreement about how much it's advisable (or even acceptable) to openly discuss sexual matters
o The boundary between private matters and group matters
o How the group works with intuition and gut feelings
o The group's responsibility to be a safe environment to raise children
o How to work constructively with strong emotions

It can be overwhelming knowing where to begin and how to proceed.

While I am not a sexual abuse expert, I am a group dynamics expert and I've been involved with a handful of instances where groups have had to handle this hot potato. Here is framing that I've assembled for setting the stage when charges of sexual abuse arise:

The Art of Deescalation

One of the hardest challenges in interpersonal dynamics is how to stay fluid and soft (as opposed to armored and entrenched) when both people are in distress. Even though I understand what's happening, and the way through it, I find this maddeningly difficult to manage when I'm one of the players. I just can't seem to avoid falling into the pit of tat for tit, and I say some of the most damaging and regrettable (not to mention embarrassing and unhelpful) things when I'm caught in this whirlpool.

Here's how it typically unfolds. (While it's not hard to picture the geometric complications possible when there are many people in distress, it's enough for the main points I want to make to concentrate on the simpler, two-person version of this dynamic) Person A has a strong reaction to something Person B did (or did not do) or said (or did not say). Person B then has a strong reaction to Person A's expressing their distress, probably feeling unfairly accused, blindsided, or grossly misunderstood.

Now we're off to the races. Absent the ability for someone to get off the merry-go-round, both people then proceed to engage in a largely unproductive impromptu poetry slam, following the rhyme scheme of ABABABAB... ad nauseam. At its worst, the protagonists are exchanging blows, not information. People get hurt, and the pain of the initial reactions gets deepened. Yuck!

In general, when someone is in serious distress, the road to getting unstuck starts with a recognition to the distressed person's satisfaction of what they're experiencing. This means demonstrating to the upset person that you grok the essence of both their feelings and their story. It is not necessary that you agree with their position or have the same personal reaction; you just need to be able to show the person that you get what's happening for them. (Note: this includes getting the affect right, not just the words.)

For Whom Laird's Bell Tolls

Wringing meaning from my blog postings is not necessary a pealing to all.

Stephan Wik, a friend in Ireland, sent me this message yesterday:
I always make time to read your blog as I find your insights useful and, for the most part, concise. Thanks for the hard work you put into them.

I'm writing to make a small suggestion. I'm not sure how much exposure you've had to non-US audiences, and I haven't seen anything in your writings that indicate you are interested in communicating with the rest of the world outside the US. If you are however, you may wish to consider replacing some of your idioms with more generally understandable expressions. Even I, a native English speaker with an American mother, find that at times I struggle to understand what you are trying to convey.

Here are some examples from your latest blog:

"Hot dog" (does this mean you are excited?)

"all sulfur and no molasses" (no idea what this means)

"This is a combo characteristic" (a combination characteristic? What does that mean?)

"I reckon" (I believe this is used in the Deep South of the US to mean 'I understand'?)

In a spirit of international understanding,
Stephan

While I'm all in favor of international understanding—and am happy to hear from readers about their reactions to my postings—this is not a simple request. Stephan is quite right to point out that my writing is full of idioms (as well as replete with metaphors and ripe with analogies). Thus, there are times (a handful of which Stephan has enumerated above) when my attempt to be breezy and eclectic comes across as an odd wind, blowing the meaning out of reach. Oops. In an effort to stretch the language (intentional) I accidentally poke a hole in the envelope, and the meaning leaks out.

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