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My Call to Convene
I have pondered—and will likely ponder for this lifetime, I suppose—human dynamics, what moves people and groups, what flows energy one way or another. As a kid, my fiends and I played a group game where one left the group and the rest, sitting in a circle, decided who was the leader. The leader would initiate an action (which everyone else would mimic) and, from time to time, subtly change the action. The "its" job was to return and, through observation, guess who the leader is. The group's job was to stump "it" by being so attuned that from the outside, a seamless flow of actions seemed to arise spontaneously.
Rolling the camera forward to when I studied improvisational theater in my 20's. We'd do a mirror exercise where one person would initiate an action that the other would follow as if he were a mirror. As the actor changed, the mirror changed. At some point, the flow was such that a subtle oneness arose in which action was happening and who was in which roll blurred. Later I trained in Aikido—uke and nage, attacker and transformer of the attack were defined—uke initiated 'the strike' (and takes the fall), nage dealt with the blow. Again, as training advanced, an attunement would arise where uke and nage co-arose in the action, or uke could transform the transformer, reversing 'roles'—a subtle giving and receiving of energy, a call and response, jazz.
As mystical as these blends may seem, however, behind it there seems to be one who strikes a note, another who harmonizes. There always seems to be one who says, however, subtly, "let's play." Such responsiveness is part of the beauty of the human, part of freedom. Response is always novel and fresh, however much it might seem the same. Initiation is an invitation, a putting the ball in play.
My other major training in convening has been living in intentional community since 1969 as a conscious way to learn and practice love and service. Perhaps this choice has come from that longer term curiosity about shaping collective energy. From a group of 4, this community grew slowly over the years to a core of 10 and a larger circle of "family at a distance" of several dozen more. We had a shared higher purpose—to learn to love unconditionally and to serve the whole. We were also a tight action team, skilled and focused on projects we felt might be a trim-tab for social change. For the first 10 years of this community life, we sat in council every night to create meaning from the day's activities and discern the path ahead—much like tribal groups planet-wide seek wisdom from the collective and the unconscious to govern themselves. I came to understand myself as a sensing element of the collective—autonomous, but interdependent and in service to the whole. No matter how enamoured I might be of my personal insights, I found them refined by tossing them in the tumbler of the group wisdom. In fact, it became laughably clear that what I considered "my" ideas were plucked from some collective pool—accumulations of past impressions, hearsay, reading and the daily shaping of my ideas by my surroundings. Yet I wasn't just a parrot—something of my own essence cooked these raw materials and synthesized awarenesses that bore a distinct stamp of my particularity.
Our activities, too, were consciously linked. We recognized that in an interconnected world, we are all co-creating all the time. With low intentionality, this co-creation is most often cacophony—the best the divine can do with distracted humans! For example, my work has me—like many friends—on airplanes far too much. No matter how much I explain the aerodynamics to myself, flying always seems like a miracle to me, and so I have take-off and landing prayers. My landing prayer for years, was, "May everyone on this plane fulfill the purpose for which they have flown, even if those purposes are all self-canceling." With all my high ideals for how my speeches or meetings might nudge the world toward the good, I always suspected there were folks on every plane equally intent on contrary goals. They were on the road, drawing down the planet's natural capital, taking revenge on "thems that done them wrong," luring innocent lovers away from the straight and narrow and otherwise wreaking havoc with my Goldilocks agenda. Unlike the general cacophony, however, our team tried to manifest this collective creativity with intentionality—aligning all of us towards the same goal and holding the highest aspirations for the good of the whole as our focus.
So group work has been woven in to the fabric of my being. I have learned to attune to my own inner voices while attending carefully to the voices around the circle. I have learned to trust the intelligence of the collective. I have learned to speak up and hold my peace in service to what is trying to be said through the collective. Perhaps others learn these skills in families or in workplaces. This just happened to be my way.
A final piece of my unique preparation was learning to attune to my own psychology. I tend to be intense and passionate—both in my highs and lows. For many years, because of this erratic pattern, I was wary of my intuition, not knowing where it was coming from or whether it might destabilize me. I put "guardians at the gate" to question and tone down the impulses and inspirations that arose daily from my gut like some kind of spiritual carbonation. This dampened my capacity to convene, because I was always questioning my motives and intentions. I was cautious about having an impact in the world, although even my toned down actions might seem quite bold to others. In recent years, this has changed. I have chosen to regard my creativity as a gift from and for the collective, and to offer my inklings to others as "best guesses" about what might be wanting to happen. Through this trust, I have begun to hone this capacity by risking unfettered expression of my instincts-for-the-whole—and watching what happened.
The Soul of the Forum, Asking to Be Born
I haven't had any biological children, but I've always thought that was because I was to be available to birth projects for the collective. In a way the work of empowering myself, of clearing out the doubt and reticence that held me back and learning to place mind in service of heart, have been preparing the womb of my creativity to birth healthy "babies."
In part, the Forum, in my experience, has been trying to be born for more than a decade. As I traveled in the early 1990s to promote Your Money or Your Life, I discovered a strange and pleasantly disconcerting reality: Americans were not, on the whole, a greedy lot. Every interviewer confessed their excesses to me, saying they knew the truth of what I was saying and tried, in some way, to live it. Bookstores jammed every evening with people who felt affirmed by my sound byte interviews during the day. I also met many people who'd provided some leadership for others in simplifying and economizing in their lives. They were other writers, meeting organizers, church folks, trainers, pop psychologists—and they were all over America. They taught, advised, demonstrated, convened, moralized, hinted-and-tipped and more. Every circuit I made of the country, these two groups—the 'practitioners" and the "leaders"—seemed to increase. By 1994, my organization, the New Road Map Foundation, felt called to produce a directory of such groups. We documented over 100 groups in this NETWORK TO REDUCE OVERCONSUMPTION. We then worked with a few of these leaders and Betsy Taylor from the Merck Family Foundation to convene a face-to-face gathering of 100 colleagues in a wide range of fields. From this, the Center for a New American Dream was born. As great as the Center is, though, in focusing and leading the challenge to overconsumption, it has not done any more convening of the community to seek collective wisdom, consensus and alignment towards action.
During those years, magazines were born. Cecile Andrews started the Simplicity Circles, modeled on Folk Education principles. Carol Holst started a grassroots network, Seeds of Simplicity, and convened several very successful practitioner conferences. John de Graaf made the hit-documentary, Affluenza—followed by Escape from Affluenza. By the late 90s, trend-tracker Gerald Celente and economist Juliet Schor both estimated that simplifiers were somewhere between 15-25% of the population. The movement was growing and maturing, with more "converts" and more sophisticated analysis of, tools for and ways of describing itself. If you will, this was the soul of the Forum, growing prior to any physical manifestation.
How/Why I Chose to Call the Forum Together
I watched, like a cat, and played with, like a dog, this gathering energy around "simplicity" for a decade. I noticed something that "wanted to happen" yet wasn't manifest—and the pressure in my own consciousness to precipitate it was grew ever stronger. In the summer of 1999, not convening this energy became more uncomfortable than acting—and I called Carol Holst, the energetic, committed head of Seeds of Simplicity to see if she wanted to join me. There has been something special in my connection with Carol which leads me to wonder if energy moves when two personality types align—the innovator and the implementer. Each one holds the vision, each one sees the other as an essential missing element in manifesting this vision. As soon as the innovator initiates, the implementer recognizes that the person has arrived to get the her vision moving. And, like the mirror game, in time the roles switch seamlessly as conditions and needs change.
When such a call comes, all I can say is that I feel it in my belly. It's like a deep impersonal urge that overtakes my personal biocomputer. I feel certain but light. I am willing to invest a great deal of energy but without attachment to a particular form. I feel alert and supple, confident without any assurance of outcome.
And things "just happen" easily. This is one of my signs that all is going according to some larger plan. When they don't "just happen", I am clear that something is off and needs to be readjusted. I stop, listen, feel in my gut where the misalignment is, consult with others and reshape the energy as a next "best guess."
(see also Courage to Convene)