Is "the collective" merely an assemblage of individuals,
or is there an intelligent field that members of a collective participate
in? If the latter, how does such a field arise and develop its "soul"—the
integrity and tenderness that allows individuals to participate without
fear? Is there always a point of focus, an individual who leads and
either retains or passes on leadership to the next individual? How does
this leadership get conferred, passed on and even, if ever, transcended?
Do such fields persist once the individuals leave the space? Do they
influence other individuals and fields? How are they like—and
not like—the fields we each recognize and work with called our
We live in an era when people of good will, faced with a "sorcerer's
apprentice" horror of non-living systems—systems without
souls multiplying out of control—must learn the art of collective
intelligence and action. We are called into multiple communities that
need to ensoul themselves—create coherence and purpose without
diminishing the ethical integrity and autonomy of the individuals who
participate or demanding undue loyalty. We need to learn to swarm, and
to mutate apace with the mutations of the systems without souls—corporations,
governments and other institutions that no longer serve the well-being
of the whole. This is one way to talk about a wisdom society, and training
ourselves in these arts is as crucial as an army training soldiers for
war. The consequences of failure are just as great.
One element of such spontaneous service communities is "convening."
A convener is the person who "calls the circle", who gathers
people for the purpose of meeting the social and spiritual realities
of our times. Convening might be a calling, like healing or teaching.
It comes from, and serves, the whole.
In 2000, the Fetzer Institute awarded the New Road Map Foundation a
small grant to gather leaders in the inchoate simplicity movement to
investigate "the power of simplicity" to change the world.
The gathering resulted in the creation of the Simplicity
Forum, a leadership alliance "promoting and honoring simple,
just, and sustainable ways of life for all." In 2001, Fetzer Institute
gave a substantially larger grant to continue this work of convening.
Simplicity for Fetzer represented a toe in the water of "spiritual
activism"—taking stands in the affairs of the world from
a core of spiritual perception and practice. Simplicity is inherently
a field that looks in both directions—inner and outer. As our
lives deepen, we want greater simplicity. As we simplify our lives,
there's space there for the deepening to grow. Simplicity and spirituality
are in a mutually reinforcing positive cycle. You simplify so that more
of god can be present in your life. You clear out that which is in the
way of love, beauty and truth manifesting through you. But you also
simplify because it's just—it's fair to those who don't have as
much as you do. You "live simply that others may simply live."
It is also ecologically inappropriate to over-consume the shared wealth
of the world—you include the natural world in the "others"
who must not suffer unnecessarily and unintentionally from your actions.
Gandhi, King and other inspirational leaders call us to such spiritually
whole and just lives.
As the convener of the Simplicity
Forum (SF), I have been asked to reflect for the Collective Wisdom
Initiative on my process of calling this alliance into being and fostering
What is Convening?
Convening as I am discussing it in these reflections, is a form of
improvisational social artistry aimed at a higher order coherence and
intelligence. It arises from and serves love. Humans gather for many
reasons and in many ways—parties, meetings, meals, work, church.
Each sort of gathering has a purpose and a preferred amount of coherence.
Parties are loose containers for the purpose of fun, frolic and perhaps
a bit of business on the side over a beer. Church is a formalized, ritualized
gathering where the people are drawn more to divine contemplation than
lateral connection. Show up any week and the same basic ceremony unfolds
and more or less the same people are in the pews, heads either bowed
or eyes front listening to the preacher. Business is goal oriented,
asking workers to be skilled and professional—and intentionally
or unintentionally asking that deeper elements of self be left out side
the door. Meals feed our bodies and our need to connect in community,
to be part of a group. Meetings often focus on purpose and outcomes
ñ old business, new business, decisions and done. Convening is
different from all of these. To state the ideal, I "convene"
in response to an inner call arising from the collective, assemble elements
like a floral arranger might select and arrange flowers, shape the event
as it unfolds with the kind of body-knowing of a skier whizzing breakneck
down a hill, and lead from and with the heart.
Convening: a Particular Kind of Leadership
Popular interpretation of living system theory leads us to believe
that systems just organize themselves. I believe this ignores the function
of the "leader"—the person who magnetizes the random
energy of the collective, focuses however briefly or lengthily this
attention, and then releases or directs it. Clearly a boss bosses. A
parent parents. A tour guide guides. These people hold official leadership
positions and people follow—or resist—their direction. But
life is filled with subtler and more ambiguous interactions where "resting
energy" is directed by someone for something.
"Let's go the movies," could activate and motivate a group
of bored teens. The kid who comes up with the idea and voices it is
a momentary leader. Soon everyone is discussing which movie to see.
Some have information about movie plots and ratings. Some have emotional
needs that hold sway—they want a comedy or a drama. If you traced
the flow of decisional energy—of leadership—in the group
you might find it moving around as alternatives are weighed until a
"yes" emerges from everyone and then, as a clump, they all
mobilize and go. I say this to make the point that we are quite used
to this process of an instigator, a deliberation (shared leadership)
and a collective recognition of which way to go. With tougher and more
complex choices, of course, more formalized processes come to bear—Robert's
Rules, Consensus, Parliamentary Procedure, Council, etc.
It seems to me that our social conditioning, our helplessness as children,
our need for years of guidance and our brain's untapped potential for
growth beyond what we already know—all of this entrains us to
take cues for thinking, feeling and doing from our environment. We will
follow the leader (or resist the leader) often without discrimination
about the state of being of he or she or it who leads. Human groups
need a head. Or perhaps, better said, create a head. The head can be
benevolent or ego maniacal, dignified or erratic, selfless or selfish,
a conductor or a soloist, radiant or greedy. The head sets the tone.
Often the founder, long after his or her death, still sets the container
for what can and cannot happen in the group. While every group member
is free to step into the position of organizing the energy (whether
others "follow" is another story!) there are those whose temperament,
inner guidance or destiny puts them in the center of group energy more
A convener is a particular sort of "head." A convener senses
something wanting to happen and authorizes him or herself to precipitate
that potential energy through an intervention or invitation. A convener
doesn't "make it happen" out of nowhere, however. A convener
is most like a host, welcoming a presence in. A convener responds as
well, to a hunch about what's being said without saying in the group.
A convener notices what is happening in the field and self authenticates,
and risks. The guess could be off, but the ball is in play, and willing
participants will then toss it around until the group field is in communication
Actually, anyone, anywhere can "host" or convene energy—put
something in play that the group responds to in order to give and receive
its best. Even if a member of the group resists, it doesn't matter—their
gesture simply becomes a factor of the game.
Conveners Stand on "Vortices of Possibility"
Many power struggles arise from the perception that there is a limited
field, a limited "pot" of possibilities. When nothing new
is available, a struggle for domination seems logical. Yet, from the
point of view of a convener, there are multiple fields of possibilities
outside the postage stamp of the recognized game. They see these vortices
of possibility arising like clouds in a sky. Others shout at one another
in a corner, imagining a boundary while the convener's sees something
quite permeable. Conveners see open spaces, as well, where nothing is
happening so the field is clear. In a way, a convener is a social entrepreneur—the
one who steps into a potential while others compete for a limited pie.
In my life, I've expanded over time the capacity to see such possibilities
outside the norm. I've experimented with living there—on my own
and with others. I've failed many times in bringing forth possibility
by not taking into account all the dimensions of the other energies
afoot. I didn't see how resistant others, or my own fear, would be to
large scale change. I tried to dominate to bring possibility into effect,
my own or others feelings. So I am learning the art of noticing possibility,
being willing to embody it so that others can assess whether it fits
their own inclinations, and being willing to shape, with others, how
the possibility will evolve.
I see these "vortices of possibility" as focal points of
energy in a group field. Wow, a mouthful! But I mean that there is always
a field created between living beings, and within fields there seems
to be a moving point of resolution of the "full catastrophe"
of hopes, fears, desires, memories of every individual as these are
projected into the collective space. This byproduct of all our emanations
could seem like chaos, but I have the sense that there is always a point
of resolution. The convener is one who watches this play of energy,
watches this co-creation of possibility like a cat might watch rainbows
cast off by a crystal twisting on a string in sunlight. When the moment
seems right, the convener "pounces"—steps into the focal
point, embodies it, articulates it, invites others to interact with
it. In religious terms, this might be a moment when there seems to be
"a call." A skillful convener will watch what happens to the
field when she steps on that point of focus and adjust the stance as
responses reveal where the focus flows in response to the "grand
gesture.". She will then boldly step into that new focal point.
It becomes like a conversation between the convener and the field. Also,
if someone else has a more accurate guess of where the energy wants
to go and steps on that point of focus, a good convener will then dance
with the new possibility. But if another tries to "wrest power"
from a point of ego, a good convener might stand more firmly and report
more clearly on what she is sensing so that everyone can make a clear
choice about where to head.
Words! The above took more time to write and to read than this subtle
stepping into possibility takes. And these words are a poor description
of that kind of cat-like attention that a convener embodies.
So, in my view, there aren't just leaders and followers, the powerful
and powerless, the agenda setters and those that adapt. I think things
are a lot more fluid than that, but not unstructured. Leadership is
always present. Anyone can take it, as long as they know that it does
not mean that their will controls the outcome. Leadership, whether it's
mobilizing your friends to go to a movie or mobilizing a nation for
war, can appear when one has the courage to be consequential and the
humility to be overruled. The concept that one is or is not a leader
defaults leadership to a few who have the temerity to propose, persuade
Also, there are many kinds of energy that get mobilized on the way
to an outcome. People shape spiritual space, emotional space, intellectual
space as well as action. A minister or shaman or ceremonialist designs
a shared time to maximize the sense of connection with the divine. An
actor can move us to tears or laughter. A writer directs our attention
to the products of their imagination or their intellectual inquiry.
A lecturer draws attention to facts they have arranged for an effect
and the audience responds—mentally or verbally agreeing, disagreeing,
spacing out or wishing they were somewhere else. A convener moves and
shapes the social sentiments of a group, their willingness to do something
or go somewhere together. All of these people, however, if they share
a common will to expand the possibilities of what it means to be human,
are sharing leadership in this collective journey to wholeness and wisdom.
Conveners live in big questions and seek to make pattern and meaning
out of disparate elements. They become, live inside, their search. It's
not just idle philosophical inquiry, a desire to understand for oneself.
I believe that conveners sense themselves as part of a larger system
and are trying to serve that system by making sense of random data.
They become an aspect of the heart-mind of the collective. They feedback
their selected data and interpretations into the system of which they
are a part, in an effort to increase connection and insight in the collective.
They place diverse elements next to one another to help the system observe
an emergent pattern.
Writers would express these intuitions through words, metaphors, paragraphs,
fiction, non-fiction. Artists would express their "sense of things"
through color, texture, shape. Musicians use words and notes, voices
and instruments. A convener's palette is people. He or she might select
for harmony or conflict, subtlety or contrast using diversities of age,
gender, opinion, nationality, race, tribe, sector of society, occupation,
class, personality types, spheres of influence, beliefs or other spectrums
along which humans sort themselves. Social scientists would assemble
such groups for study, but social artists are attempting to influence
the collective, which is the source of their inspiration to convene.
The purpose could be peace, it could be discovery, it could be understanding,
it could be community building, it could be reconciliation. The output
of the convening would be available to all who attend—once called
into being, the circle is a living entity which comes to know and shape
Because conveners hold themselves as servants to larger questions and
processes, they become trusted. People know they will be more themselves—wiser,
kinder, smarter—in the spaces conveners create. The "gatherings"
might be on-line, on conference calls or face-to-face. They are always
many-to-many, with the convener serving as a host, assembling the participants
and, when necessary, shaping the flow of connections and communications.
After the event, the convener will often feedback into the system the
essences of what occurred, not as the final word, but as a new input
to create the next step in insight, coherence and community. The convener
"holds the space" 24-7, because the collective lives within
the heart of the convener. The group becomes one more element of the
whole system that the convener tunes in to for vital information on
the health of the whole.
The Unfolding of the Simplicity
Convening as Sustained Attention
I'd participated in an expensive "fiasco" of such a high
order that it really got my attention. Rather than weaving all the strands
of gold into an exquisite fabric, the facilitation team took misstep
after misstep to the point that there was mutiny. What good arose was
in spite of the design. This experience planted in me a thirst for real
synthesis, real creative and mobilizing dialogue among leaders. What
didn't happen was a partial map for me in designing the space of the
We used a web-based survey tool to give everyone a chance to weigh
in on Conference priorities. Carol Holst, myself and our facilitator,
Ron Kertzner, synthesized the responses and designed the agenda to suit
the expressed needs of the group. I believe that being consulted on
the agenda gave everyone a greater sense of ownership of the meeting
ñ and less cause for rebellion during the meeting!
A Big Speed Bump in the Ramp Up
Two weeks before the Congress I learned that Fetzer was not going
to fund us again for another year. While we had no firm promise, I'd
gotten an indication that we might expect an equal amount to the prior
year, just over $100,000. It required a great deal of steadiness in
purpose to approach and run the meeting without any resources on the
horizon to enact any plans we might concoct. I held it as a liberation
from funder-expectations rather than a collapsing of part of the field.
As simplicity and frugality practitioners, we were very able to imagine
how to do anything on a shoestring and I had faith that "way would
open" elsewhere. I think my steadiness allowed everyone to skate
on this thinner ice with full abandon and enthusiasm—and work
is continuing even with these diminished financial prospects. To me
this was another affirmation of the accuracy of convening the Forum.
Had it not been a good guess of what the collective wanted to do, the
field might have collapsed at this barrier to forward momentum.
Spirituality and Activism
With a web-based dialogue space and an email list, a great deal of
dialogue happened during the year. A divide became apparent between
the people who saw spirituality as essential to simplicity and those
who felt that our spirituality was our own business and that our work
should be pragmatic and political. No one disagreed on the importance
of the spiritual dimension to existence, but we disagreed on how it
should be woven into the design of the Forum, the purpose of the Forum
and the presentation of the Forum. I chose to hold the "spiritual"
pole for the group so that the demands of the activists could be met
without sacrificing the community building and communion building aspects.
I designed my opening comments to "call the circle"—to
really knit the group together and to set a high intention. I also named
the countervailing forces that might present themselves—the conflicts
and tendencies to withdraw energy—so that the group could be alert
when and if they arose. Without using the word "spiritual",
I created a spiritual container in which we could all feel relaxed,
alert, included and called to our highest.
The great gift was Dennis Kucinich. I invited him to speak as a local
Congressperson and as someone who has stunned the transformational change
movement with his courageous stands for peace. As a politician, he might
be expected to speak for the art of the practical and possible in the
current government gridlock. Instead, he spoke about simplicity standing
at the threshold of the immanent and the manifest, about simplicity
bringing spirit to earth. He got a standing ovation and the spiritual
foundation of the Forum was firmly set.
The First Night
Because a fair number of participants could not arrive in time for
an official group session on the first night of the Forum, we set out
food in the gathering room and allowed the first evening to be a reception.
This gave people many hours to get acquainted and begin to seek synergies
in a relaxed and gracious way. I am convinced that this contributed
to the conviviality of the Forum.
For something new to arise, the members of a group need to have the
chance to present their "already knowing" to others sufficiently
to feel seen and gotten. You can't expect leaders to set aside their
life work to "synergize." The urge to explain what they do
and why will be too great during the whole meeting for them to really
participate. Instead of building on other's ideas, their contributions
will simply be new fragments of their basic lecture. Somehow I knew
that each leader needed to feel truly seen, known and appreciated before
they could be enthusiastic about co-creation. We had each person do
a one-screen self introduction on an email list of the whole group.
Because they were brief, most participants read them—and the rolling
in of colleagues emails prior to the event built momentum. Then we offered
each person a chance to do a poster about their work. We gave them a
basic format and total freedom about content—and had them send
the file to a local Kinkos for printing. These posters hung during the
whole conference on the walls of the Conference room, so people were
always inside the commitment and stories of their colleagues. Finally,
we had each person send in a 100 word bio—these were assembled
in alphabetical order and each participant had a copy. The first morning,
after the greeting from myself and from Dennis Kucinich, each participant
stood up in the order of their bio listing and had a minute to add anything
additional or personal to their bio, which everyone had printed in front
of them. By the end of these three successive self introductions, I
felt none of the "look at me!" energy I had at other events.
People were simply delighted to be present.
With all of this prior work in place, the meeting went very smoothly.
The only element missing was sufficient free time. The group simply
took it in the form of late into the night sessions in the hospitality
room and the halls. The fact that we had a never-ending supply of beer,
wine and snacks was essential to the success of the meeting!
The one point of tension was the need of one participant to reshape
the agenda for some specific organizing he'd hoped to do. I had seen
this coming weeks before, had a long conversation with him, got his
buy-in for the agenda, and so at the time of his outburst, it was easy
to stay steady and refer back to our prior agreements. In the end, he
got what he needed and in the final session he apologized to the group
for his public upset—and the group affirmed our love for his passion
and commitment. The essence of this was that the good will and the container
were set so clearly and solidly that the space could handle outbursts
and oddballs without losing the thread of continuity.
How I Felt
As the convener, the meeting lived inside me, but not in a stressful
way. Most of the time I was silent, but when I needed to speak, I was
present with a few pointed words. I was relaxed, and in that space,
everyone could relax. Yet I was highly committed and engaged, which
helped everyone stay alert to the precious opportunity we had to build
our community—and to build a movement. The success of the meeting
was everyone's doing—and ownership was high. However, I recognize
that "something" in me held the shape of the meeting, the
vibe of the meeting. The best I can say, is that it lived in my belly
and radiated through my heart (and sometimes through my mouth).
An interesting further exploration might "cross-tab" kinds
of initiatives, organizations, meetings and outcomes with some personality
typology. Do groups inevitably partake of the personality of the convener,
however much she might want to "step out of the way" once
the flow is flowing? If so, what outcomes can we expect from each personality
type? Is every type a leader, but in a different way?
I hope these reflections on convening will call forth more insights
from others. They represent my inklings and sensings, not anything I've
read or systematically studied. I offer them as a gift to the collective
for shaping by others with their own knowings. I believe that convening
is an essential form of leadership for a wisdom society, and getting
better at it will allow us as a species to more consciously evolve.
(see also My Call to Convene)