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Grounded in Discipline, Open to Magic

The Story

by Mitch Saunders & Penny Williamson

[ from Grounded in Discipline, Open to Magic: Reflections on Synthesis Dialogue II, a report to The Fetzer Institute ]


How might gatherings become formative influences in the lives of collectives and of individuals?  What works to bring a gathering alive?  And, how can we access and share this living body of knowledge?  These questions guide the following report which represents a first step in documenting the facilitation and coaching methods and practices used in a convening process.

The narrative account that follows focuses on Synthesis Dialogues II, convened in Trent, Italy, June 27–July 2, 2001.  The first Synthesis Dialogue was held in Dharamsala, India, in 1999.  This second Synthesis gathering was convened by the Association For Global New Thought (AGNT) and included His Holiness The Dalai Lama (HHDL) and forty distinguished international leaders of religion, government, social science and education.  The purpose of this second gathering was twofold:  

  1. To create, through dialogue, a direct experience of an “awakened world”—in effect, a group embodying collective intelligence and spiritual wisdom

  2. To cultivate a community of diverse leaders capable of addressing pressing global issues such as the decades-old conflict between China and Tibet.

The Fetzer Institute invited us to assist the AGNT leadership group with the design of the event, to act as their coaches during the planning and facilitation of the six-day gathering, and to share our findings.  In extending this invitation, the Fetzer Institute was expressing its dedication to forming a partnership between the grantor and the funded group and to ensure both the success of the gathering and of the group.  They were also acknowledging that, although numerous people are now convening groups with overlapping intentions and composition, not all of these gatherings work.  The Fetzer Institute not only wanted the AGNT gathering to succeed, they also wanted a better understanding of what is involved in enabling success of such gatherings.  As coaches, our role was to help the group become clear about intention, agenda, design, and convening practices.  We agreed to serve as coaches and to assume the role of reporters and theory builders to help evolve a support system for cultivating communities of leaders through awakened gatherings.

In this narrative we recount the preparation and processes of our work with AGNT.  We then assess and reflect upon the timeless principles that uphold the success of awakened gatherings.  We focus on three essential themes:

  • Reflections on our distinctive coaching role at Trent, and on the role of coaches in gatherings of social significance.

  • The possibility of individual and collective formation and transformation as an integral part of gatherings that address complex social issues.

  • The question of what brings communities “alive”?

Throughout the narrative we have incorporated reflections derived from follow-up interviews with three key leaders of AGNT:  Barbara Bernstein, Executive Director, the Reverend Michael Beckwith, and Mary Morrissey, who served as the primary facilitators of the event.

Finally we have distilled core learnings from the Synthesis Dialogues II and our combined professional experience as coaches to provide specific recommendations for the consideration of the Fetzer Institute concerning future inquiry, research, and practice in the emergent field of convening awakened gatherings.


We would like to acknowledge and honor the members of AGNT and the Synthesis Dialogues in Trent who welcomed us as participants while also accepting us as observers.  We recognize that their effort to convene an awakened gathering of world leaders is also pioneering.  Their willingness to accept both our guidance and our scrutiny is, itself, a contribution to the emergent wisdom concerning awakened gatherings. [1]

The role of coaching in awakened gatherings is largely unexplored.  Similarly, the larger endeavor supported by the Fetzer Institute—to support the formation of a potent community of collective intelligence and spiritual wisdom—is a pioneering and historic effort.  Accordingly, our report draws heavily from actual experience “in the field”, i.e., Synthesis Dialogues II, providing a narrative based on the actual experience of a gathering which comes alive. 

We liken our complex roles as coaches, reporters, and theorists to that of participant observers encountering an unknown culture.  While participating fully in the experience, we were also challenged to maintain a perspective that would enable us to intervene appropriately when needed and to extrapolate knowledge that would advance future work in the field. 

We began the work by asking ourselves: Is it possible to articulate the necessary and sufficient conditions that enable a group to share the experience of an “awakened world”?  An awakened group would come alive at the highest level of collective participation.  Such a group would encourage and enable individuals to express their highest selves, to speak and act out of love and a desire to serve something larger than their own interests. An awakened group would engage in dialogue where differences inform a genuine inquiry into deeply held collective assumptions and structures.  The group would achieve shared understanding, reach new insights, and begin to embody a capacity for self-organization to take meaningful action in the world.

Our role as coaches and co-designers at the Trent gathering was to help that awakening occur and to help ensure the success of the roles played by each person in the leadership group.  Additionally, our role was to assist the realization of the collective intent of the group as a whole.  In Trent we saw actualized what was dreamed and designed.  Based on our own observations, plus those of the participants, we believe the gathering succeeded as a direct experience of an awakened world and the initial formation of a potent leadership community.

How can we convey fully the roles played by each person in the AGNT leadership group, our own roles as coaches, the gifts contributed by individual participants, and the collective energy that created this result?  We begin by telling the story of the gathering itself and of our unfolding role as coaches.  We offer reflection on key principles and practices of coaching and convening, and we raise provocative questions and provide suggestions that may guide the future of this work.  Our intention is to add to the important and growing discourse on the convening of such groups as formational endeavors.


Preparing to Serve

In our previous experience as coaches, we have learned that to be effective in our work it is crucial to let go of “ego”.  Specific identifications or preoccupations with issues of rank and status can distract and pull us into fear or false pride.  Centering the work in mind, heart and spirit is essential.  This challenge was uppermost in our minds as we were asked to do this work.

In making our preparations to serve the AGNT leadership group, we were mindful of unforeseen and unresolved challenges that had surfaced in the first dialogue gathering in India in 1999.  Program officers at the Fetzer Institute wished to strengthen the field of the 2001 event.  In preparing to do so, we asked various people what would make the Trent Meeting compelling.  In the process of these inquiries, Barbara Marx Hubbard, a visionary thinker and co-founder of AGNT, expressed her wish for this not to be “yet another meeting where big shots come and posture, speak at each other, and then go home.”

As coaches we wished to call forth the best of what could be, to help participants discover the most enlivening vision of what was possible in the Trent dialogues.  What  were people like Hubbard and other AGNT leaders envisioning for Trent?

Hubbard said what was crucial for her was to be able to tell the essence of her work in the world and what partnerships or help she yearns for and to hear the same from the other invited leaders.  “The world is calling for our collective awakening,” she said, “and each of our work is connected to this call.  None of us can do this alone.  We need each other.” 

What a gift it would be to create such a gathering.  What a waste it would be not to.

Forming The Coaching Partnership

We believe that partnership is a sacred covenant.  Trust, respect and love between partners, as well as simpatico world views, are the essentials of effective coaching.  Paraphrasing Gandhi, we have to be with each other what we want to create in the world.  The two of us were asked to partner with each other in this work at the request of Eric Nelson and Tom Callanan, Program Officers at the Fetzer Institute, who had the hunch that our combination of expertise and ways of being in the world would be complementary and bring what was needed to AGNT and the Dialogues in Italy.  We had not previously met. Each of us works in partnerships as a preferred style and we were curious and interested to discover whether this “arranged marriage” would work. 

To form our partnership we had several conversations by phone in which we shared our deepest aspirations for this work, revealed our perceived strengths and shortcomings to one another, shared stories from our lives and work, and spoke from our hearts our hopes and fears about partnering and about being called to serve this gathering.  We also shared and compared some of the lessons we had learned from coaching and participating in similar gatherings.

Because our partnership was formed on short notice, we were prompted to focus on the essentials of effective partnership.  We had to distill to essence, go to what works.  Ultimately, there is a certain instinct to trust another that comes from a place beyond conversation, from a sense of another’s essence.  We acted on this intuitive “knowing” and decided to proceed.  We shared a deep interest in discovering how we might best serve this work, a propensity to risk stepping into the unknown, and a commitment to helping each other remain centered and effective throughout the process.

Convening the Leadership Group


Coaching is contextual.  To serve AGNT it was essential for us to learn the scope and content of their work in the world and to discover essential elements of prior history that impacted the Trent gathering.  The fourteen leaders of AGNT include a gifted Executive Director, who helped organize the 1993 Parliament of World Religions, a visionary futurist, a Christian monk and renowned author on mysticism, and twelve ecumenical ministers of large, multi-faith congregations around the United States.  The ministers share common values and a capacity to inspire their congregations in ways that generate a powerful group field where all are held in the certainty of love and the intention for the emergence of the best of human potential.

In the first Synthesis Dialogue, outside facilitators were brought in to design and lead the gathering.  The AGNT leaders took a back seat, their voices hidden, their gifts invisible.  There were many difficulties with the first event including preoccupations with special interests and being seen in the forefront, individuals feeling unheard or insufficiently heard, and many wanting more from their meetings with HHDL.  In the wake of that experience, the AGNT leadership decided they would design and facilitate the Trent Dialogues on their own.  More importantly, they decided that it was essential for them to show up in their full capacities and to create the field within which an awakened world could be experienced.  They were determined to do what they knew best, but also they were fearful that their talents might not adequately serve the audience of world leaders at Trent.  They struggled with whether or not what worked so well for their congregations would serve to call forth the kind of dialogues desired at the Synthesis gathering.

Following the Fetzer Institute’s offer to provide our expertise, the AGNT leadership group invited us to meet with them to discern rightness of fit and to explore ways we might best serve.  So strong was their commitment to the principle that the collective convening group must embody what they were calling for in the gathering that, when Mitch was unable to attend the first meeting, key AGNT leaders scheduled a second meeting to ensure their comfort with both of us.

We came into the process after several key and non-negotiable parameters had been set:

  • Purpose of the gathering was published;

  • Invitations had been issued, and many already accepted;

  • Site had been selected and the Focolare had been deemed ideal hosts for the gathering;

  • Musicians and recording staff had already been selected.

AGNT recognized that although they had clear ideas and preferences concerning the design for Synthesis II, they did not know how exactly to form or give shape to a design that had a high probability of achieving their aims.  Steps we took at this point:

  • We established that we shared similar ideals and sensibilities including a capacity for genuine exchange and intimacy and a desire to integrate spirituality with social action

  • We offered helpful insights, models, stories and metaphors from our previous experience

  • We provided each member of AGNT a copy of the Fetzer publication, “Centered on the Edge as a way of forging common language.

With AGNT, we considered and weighed options for reconciling and integrating disparate, sometime even competing, design parameters:

  • The desire for the gathering to be an embodiment of a ‘field of love’

  • The wish for concrete, measurable results to impact the issue of China & Tibet

  • Contractual constraints imposed by the Office of Tibet.  (Far in advance of the meeting, the Office of Tibet demanded a detailed minute by minute agenda for the schedule that would involve HHDL.  Tibetan administrators then exerted ‘veto power’ over those design ideas that fell outside their range of comfort. For example, HHDL must be seated on a stage and not be seated in a circle that suggested equality.

  • In order to counteract the negative dynamics experienced in India in 1999, AGNT pressed for a particular type of roundtable discussion on Day 4—small groups rotating every 10 minutes to have face time with HHDL and share what they have been discussing.

What we discovered together was a desire to serve a larger cause, an affinity of thought that went beyond expertise, and, over time, a shared sense of love and connection.  These planning meetings focused on discerning the best ways for each to serve and on considering various agenda options.  Beneath the surface of our design conversations, however, we touched each other’s hearts, listened for openings where “awakenings” might appear, and cultivated with AGNT a deeper sense of their own purpose of convening gatherings that come alive, especially for communities of world leaders.  It was our experience that coaching served to call these already committed individuals to focus on powerful shared intentions.  This was particularly important when impulses to “problem-solve” or implement action tended to pull the group away from the core intention.  As coaches we were able to establish crucial relationships and a foundation of trust.  Such relationships were possible because we were fully included in the group process and were, thus, able to fully implement fundamental interventions based upon best practices of coaching.  In view of the group’s disappointing experience with outside facilitation in the 1999 Synthesis Dialogues, this foundation of trust was essential.

The Planning Phase

The planning phase for a gathering is as important as the event itself.  In first-time meetings such as this, crucial relationships form between coach and clients, assessments of capacities and needs begin to take shape, and key coaching and design help is given.

Text Box: What are the necessary and sufficient attributes of any convening group?  For example, how significant is an appreciation for setting the field and/or spiritual maturity? We discovered in AGNT a spiritually mature and wise group.  Our contribution was as much about lifting up the gifts we saw in the AGNT leaders as it was about bringing new wisdom to the table.  In those first meetings, talk centered on three topics:  clarifying the intention for the Synthesis II Dialogues, discerning together what structures and processes in the agenda would allow fulfillment of that intention, and clarifying with AGNT their distinctive roles and responsibilities for serving as the conveners and facilitators.

Selecting Facilitators

Two key decisions emerged from those meetings.  The first decision was to select only two AGNT leaders to be co-facilitators of the gathering.  Mary Morrissey and Michael Beckwith were selected.  Others in the leadership group would be helped in discerning their vital supporting roles.  Initially, all of the members of the AGNT leadership team wished to rotate the facilitation role.  One of our first proactive coaching missions was to strongly discourage this approach and to guide them to the decision of selecting only two leaders.

Setting the Field

The second decision was to focus on “setting the field” for the gathering and holding that field throughout the course of the event.  In effect the group consciously committed to creating a container of words, music, silence, and intention that would invite people to show up from their hearts, to feel welcomed and welcoming, and to bring their highest selves and gifts to this gathering.   Another key element for establishing the desired “field” was the collective intention to focus attention on the kind of future we wanted to create as contrasted with an emphasis on finding solutions to problems.

It is inevitable that planning sessions must place considerable focus on the particulars of implementation, such as, “When will we have music?” “How will we open a session?” “What is the best way to convene small breakout groups?” “How do we get tangible outcomes on the Tibet issue?” and so forth.  Planning sessions are notoriously task driven, and this was no less true of the AGNT planning sessions.  The pressure to organize the event can easily obscure the values and intentions and higher aspirations of the convening group.  This may be particularly true for groups, such as AGNT, which aspire to evolving a truly emergent model of convening.  Venturing into this unknown territory is not always best served by old, familiar skills of meeting planning.

The vision called for a new way of convening and was frustrated by efforts to put the “new wine” of an awakened world into the “old skins” of conventional meeting planning (brainstorming topics, list making, roundtables and breakout sessions, and related logistics).  As coaches, we were not involved in the process with sufficient lead time to develop a more in-depth planning process which would have integrated aspirations and logistics, principles and processes, in a more effective way.  It was our experience that the desired “field” evolved over time, with multiple crucial “in the moment” dialogues between the coaches and the AGNT leadership group.  Coaching in this regard was “just in time”, evolving, and improvisational.  This was nuanced work that emerged in the moment and was predicated upon subtle coaching skills—reaching into professional experience, attempting to match what AGNT leaders knew or felt strongly about and working in appreciative ways to serve the intention of the group. 

The AGNT leaders recognized they held clear preferences for the design of Synthesis II but they weren’t clear on how to give them shape.  Accordingly, we offered models and stories from our previous experiences.  We encouraged them to think of their roles at times as midwives and, at other times, as elders.  Midwives assist in the birth of new possibilities.  Most often midwives embody a gentle style of facilitation, honoring what desires to be birthed.  Sometimes facilitators, like midwives, are also called to move in swiftly and elegantly to provide incisive direction when blocks appear.  Elders bear witness to and concentrate attention on the emerging shape, intensity and integrity of the group field as the gathering progresses.  Elders also hold and direct their capacities for healing and attunement towards those in positions of leadership and accountability.  In the AGNT leadership group the appropriate role of the co-facilitators was that of midwife, while the appropriate role of the other members of the AGNT leadership team was that of elders. 

After the two initial meetings, AGNT invited us to play two key roles: 1) To continue to help design the gathering; 2) To be coaches or stewards of the AGNT leadership group as they prepared for and facilitated the event.  As we reviewed the agenda design that preceded our involvement, we discovered elements of design already considered non-negotiable, including a few that we believed could hinder the very intention that was desired.  In the face of these concerns, our approach was to inquire about the thinking that informed each element, sometimes to suggest a different method, and if that was not possible, to let go of our “knowing” about right ways.  We turned then to asking such questions as, “How can we work with this design in a way that would allow participants to engage in a genuine dialogue, and not get swept away in serial monologues?”  The combination of a tacit, yet strong, shared intent plus a receptivity to resonant input became AGNT’s hallmark to the design process.

Prior to our arrival in Italy, the design process included two full-day conversations with the board followed up by many three-way conversations involving the two of us and Barbara Bernstein.  In each of our interactions we exercised deep listening and compassionate exchanges that would be intended norms for the gathering.  We agreed to willingly suspend what is known and to invent new options, being responsive to emergent needs as they arose.  This included suspending our own beliefs that we knew the best methods to achieve stated ends.  We met with the leadership group in Italy for final planning meetings before the actual event.  We also continued to meet with them several times a day as a group (and informally as needed) during the Synthesis II Dialogues to fine-tune, support, rehearse and reflect.  What emerged was a unique combination of the collective gifts, far richer than any one of us could have created on our own.

Creating the Container

As the time for the gathering drew near, including a day of planning in Italy, the leadership group worked out the details of the agenda.  A decision was made to invite each participant to speak about his/her work in the world in front of the entire group.  These twenty-three talks were scheduled to begin the first afternoon of the gathering and would require two half-days to complete.  We worried privately about this format, but were led to understand that it was important for each person to have his/her say, and to be heard by the whole group.  This is precisely what had not happened satisfactorily in the first Synthesis Dialogues, and AGNT was committed to the process.  We asked how we could ensure that people share from their hearts and expressed our concern that in giving a speech, the temptation to be self-congratulatory might override the invitation to speak from essence.                                                                 

Text Box: What is the optimal “anticipatory mind set” for this kind of gathering?  

And how would you know if participants are properly prepared?
The flow of the design that evolved from these conversations formed a powerful container for each person and for the whole community.  The outlines for that container were being formed even before the gathering through the personal contacts that Barbara Bernstein maintained with each guest, and through the letters that expressed the intentions for the gathering and the questions that would be asked.  The discipline of collective preparation embodied by AGNT made it possible to flow from vision to readiness to the gathering itself.  The presence of the Focolare community, our extraordinary hosts in Trent who were devoted to providing enabling service, also deepened the field surrounding this gathering.


On the first morning, following silence, music, and opening blessings from representative faith traditions, each participant was invited to speak briefly (for one or two minutes) about what was in their hearts as they entered the gathering.  Several AGNT leaders began this sharing to model simplicity, vulnerability, and brevity, and others followed suit.  It was an auspicious and heart-filled opening.

Blessing and Being Blessed

Text Box: Being “blessed”—the experience of being seen and fully appreciated for one’s essence—may be key to transcending “ego” problems.  How can this be handled in groups less receptive to activities exhibiting  “spiritual” overtones? In the afternoon and following morning, each of the invited leaders talked for seven minutes about the essence of their work in the world and the partnerships or help they would welcome.  Following each talk, Michael Beckwith and Mary Morrissey took turns reflecting, in only twenty to thirty seconds, the essence of what that person had said, with great accuracy and compassion.  After each summary all in the audience were invited to offer a physical gesture of blessing, holding up open hands toward the speaker, letting each know that the universe was already streaming toward them with the needed help and partnerships.  And so each person spoke, was witnessed and was blessed by the whole.  After each set of four or five talks, there was a brief interlude of silence and then music, played and sung by the musicians who graced the entire event:  gospel singer Rickie Byers Beckwith and Tibetan flutist, Nawang Kechog.  This carefully paced experience offered a rare opportunity for each of the twenty-three invited guests to be seen, listened to with rapt attention, honored, and then blessed by the highest intentions of the collective.  The process helped to “set the field” by creating an atmosphere of appreciation and upholding the potential of the gathering. 

Text Box: If facilitator skill and/or maturity is essential, how do we assess likely fit between process design and the facilitator’s ability to enable the desired effect? As experienced coaches, neither of us had ever witnessed a string of individual presentations that added to the depth or quality of a group field.  We had, in fact, feared that the twenty-three presentations would drain the field of what was alive.  We attribute the strength of the process to the extraordinary, ministerial way in which the facilitators approached the process.  Rather than draining the field, the individual/group dynamic produced a palpable exchange of energy that raised attention to the highest potential and intentions of all.

Full Participants and Others - Inclusion and Exclusion Issues

Not all participants were invited to share in the presentations and blessings.  AGNT was clear about who was invited to the gathering and who came under some other arrangement.  Though this latter group constituted a minority (seventeen out of forty participants), we wondered privately and explicitly with AGNT about the potential unintended side effects of the distinction between “full participants” and “others”.  In our experience, both overt and covert status distinctions tend to evoke preoccupations with inclusion and exclusion, rank and privilege among a community of diverse leaders.  What’s more, similar distinctions had apparently fueled considerable discontent at the first Synthesis Dialogue in India—with an accompanying inability to get beyond what some labeled “ego problems” at that event. 

The presence of complex, even potentially eruptive group dynamics, e.g., differential rank and privilege, is not necessarily a problem.  However, how the learning concerning these dynamics is handled can make a big difference in the life of the group.  Sometimes, underlying dynamics are perplexing to members.  This is especially so if they are evoked silently at one point, e.g., in a process where twenty-three of forty are listened to and blessed, and then remain dormant (unexpressed and unexamined) until a future precipitating event provides the occasion for the expression of unresolved tensions.  We have found that communities stay alive and continue to evolve and deepen when the community has a way to effectively address tensions or conflicts that recur.

Text Box: What are the “best practices” for engaging underlying group dynamics in a way that contributes positively to the formation and productivity of a group? Based on some of the comments shared with us by those who did not enjoy the status of “full participant” at Synthesis II, we anticipate that future dialogues might provide the Synthesis community with an opportunity to explore how these underlying forces operate and exert an influence on the formation of its own shape and capacities.  In our view, this could serve as a boon to its mission, since dynamics associated with class divisions and differential power seem to be at the heart of most of the world’s most intractable conflicts.

Listening to What's Needed: Facilitation Checkpoints

In between each meeting, the Stewards—AGNT leaders, ourselves and the musicians—would meet to reflect briefly on what had just occurred, to sense together the emerging dynamics, to reconsider what to do next, and to fine-tune who would do what and when.  Stewarding the gathering as it unfolds may involve discovering that what was designed falls short in some way and calls for a willingness to continuously design the gathering out of what is needed, what is called for, and what is trying to emerge.  The dynamic requires a willingness to risk pre-arranged design for something not previously considered.  It calls for a high level of trust in process and in each other.

As the Trent meeting unfolded, a magical weaving of sensibilities and gifts emerged among and between our group of leaders and coaches.  Like a good improvisational jazz group, we played together in high form.  One of us would sometimes take a brief lead, suggesting the use of helpful language or calling us back to a theme.  Throughout, we offered support and held the AGNT leaders with love, appreciation, and belief in their capacities, just as they were doing for the participants.  In order to stay responsive to the whole group’s emergent needs and unfolding meaning over time, we periodically helped AGNT reframe the intended outcomes or the facilitation emphases for an upcoming module on the agenda.  Collectively, we developed the trust to speak openly with each other about difficult moments, as well as beautiful ones, and to learn together as we progressed.  We were accepted into the AGNT family, and our combined gifts were recognized as enlarging the capacity of the whole.

These periodic Stewards meetings provided an important coalescing and centering function for the facilitators and musicians.  They were especially beneficial as a way for each individual to focus on the particular, appropriate contribution for the next segment of the gathering.  By alternating meetings of the Stewards with the large group sessions, the Stewards were able to move alternately from “safe harbor” to “open seas” and to recommit to highest intention while refocusing, or even radically altering, design.

Text Box: If ongoing reflection and improvisation design is required even as a gathering unfolds, what does this suggest about the fundamental nature of planning and stewardship for a gathering that “comes alive”? At one point in this process, the Stewards group faced an element of the design about which we, as coaches, had great concern.  At earlier points in the coaching process, this item (involving a proposal to have round-table face time with His Holiness The Dalai Lama) had been non-negotiable.  As the leadership group sat to consider the rightness of fit, it became clear that another path would be preferable.  The group was able to access its wisdom during this quiet and thoughtful dialogue and right action emerged.  The Stewards, attuned to the moment and trusting themselves and each other, were able to relinquish this design element as a planned process that no longer served the group need or intention. What had previously been an “issue”, simply dissolved in its own inappropriateness at the right moment.

These improvised actions highlighted for us the delicate and sometimes paradoxical stance we felt called to as coaches.  Essentially, we were called to acknowledge our own experience (especially when not in agreement with our client), to believe in the wisdom of the group, to hold the possibility of many paths leading to awakening, and to choose carefully and gently when to intervene.

A Chant for Centering

When group dynamics threatened the integrity of the gathering, the Stewards agreed that a collective centering method was needed.  But given the diversity of preferences and religious biases present in the group it was not at all clear how to do this.  One clear issue involved finding a way that was meaningful and culturally relevant to return the group to its potential.  Following nearly thirty minutes of discussing competing proposals, the group decided to trust Nawang.  When it was time to return to the gathering no one among the Stewards group knew exactly what he would do.  In the gathering, Nawang decided precisely when to lead the group in a chant that evolved to be one of the most significant variables in the gathering.  His chant: “May all be kind to each other.”  It is difficult to imagine the gathering unfolding as seamlessly had the large group, in their group wisdom, not returned from time to time to that chant.

Listening to the process, trusting each other, willingness to risk, and willingness to relinquish being “right” are all essentials of convening and facilitating which must be enabled by constant renewal throughout the gathering.  As we saw the effectiveness of Nawang’s chant, we also recognized that trust and risk-taking within the convening group enabled trust and aliveness in the gathering.

We also learned that meetings that work entail this type of stewardship-by-design.  Stewardship-by-design, in turn, entails the ability to relinquish pre-conceived design.  Appropriate response to the needs of the larger group cannot be designed in advance, but rather must emerge as a result of continuous fine-tuning among conveners.

Introduction to the Dialogue

His Holiness The Dalai Lama joined the gathering on day four.  By that time a strong and loving group field had formed.  We listened to HHDL talk about the spiritual state of the world.  He spoke somberly of Tibet during that talk, saying, “My nation is dying.”  Yet, he also spoke of his great hope for the world and his observations of the rise of compassion.  He held lightness and gravity.  He held sorrow side by side with recognition of the birth of another way of being in the world.  The destruction of his culture has led to the dissemination of Tibetan values throughout the world, the ironic reality of Virtual Tibet born of his exile.  His words about Tibet were heart-rending.  There is, he said, no more than a five-year window before the people of Tibet and the nation itself are destroyed.  The Tibetan people are facing genocide at the hands of the Chinese government.  The land is being destroyed.  This gentle and beautiful people, this rich ecology at the top of the world, is in desperate need of help.

The community of participants decided that the subject of the first group dialogue would be How Can We Help Tibet?—as an example of a people facing genocide, in recognition of the particular urgency of this topic, and out of the collective caring within the group for HHDL and for Tibet.  The hope was to bring the wisdom and sensibilities of our diverse viewpoints to this complex, difficult topic.

A Dialogue Among Friends

There is a saying:  “To truly listen is to risk being changed forever.”  In the dialogue that unfolded, we observed people speak from passion, wisdom and deep desire to help.  Each person was heard and acknowledged.   The wisdom that emerged was shaped by the blend of sensibilities from Eastern and Western cultural perspectives, by the vast experience with complex international conflicts among those present, and, unfailingly, by the focused intention of all participants.  HHDL had expressed the wish to be a part of such a dialogue, with such a group as this.  We Stewards wondered whether it would be possible for a revered and wise person of the stature of HHDL to be in a dialogue of equals.  We experienced what followed as a dialogue between a Master and his Council of Sages, a global history lesson with words that were thoughtful, sometimes intense, loving, and, in the end, wise. With regard to the potential of this group as a birthplace or incubator for new possibilities, we also witnessed the emergence of several new myths and their associated repertoires of response, for example:  here was one of the world’s most prominent spiritual teachers engaged in a two-way exchange; leaders from diverse religions were coalescing around common aspirations; and we may have witnessed a preview of the “reincarnation” of Tibetan Buddhism as it has existed for millennia, now re-emerging as a powerful force beyond its formerly isolated existence.

Breakdown or Breakthrough?

All too often, leadership gatherings realize outcomes more similar to Synthesis I—meaning participants sense the gathering’s potential, but leave feeling that it was never quite realized.  This gathering with HHDL held opportunity to influence the trajectory of Tibet’s history and because of this energy, it also held potential for breakdown and breakthrough. At one crucial point, it took some careful navigating.  We might call this juncture: Press Conference/No Press Conference. 

One of the participants, a close personal friend of HHDL, drew a parallel between the Nazi-led genocide in the last century and China’s oppression of the people and culture of Tibet.  This participant also drew a parallel between the Vatican’s culpability then (e.g., failure to address the crimes against humanity by the Nazis), and its culpability today by failing to take sufficient action to stop China’s perpetration of genocide in Tibet.  Citing research concerning the Vatican’s culpability in the 1940s, this member proposed that the group call a press conference to admonish Pope John Paul II not to make the same mistake twice.

This proposal evoked numerous concerns, objections, and counterproposals—each one met by the original advocate with incisive rebuke.  For a time, the conversation turned to debate, with clear positions staked out by different ‘camps’ in the room.  So intense was this exchange that an unscheduled break was called to provide an opportunity for the facilitators, Stewards, and others to consider what to do.  During the break, the participant advocating the press conference continued his appeal with anyone who would listen.  One by one, members would engage him for a few minutes, then, appearing to have given up, they would walk away. 

Because of our experience with individual and group formation and our stance in this gathering, we were able to perceive the unfolding drama from a formative perspective.  As it turned out, the press conference proposal represented the advocate’s best shot at mobilizing and executing some of his deepest aspirations.  He was hoping to realize several dreams in one fell swoop:

  • Influence the Catholic Church to be more congruent in its actions and espoused values

  • Provide immediate, breakthrough assistance to HHDL and the people of Tibet

  • Realize a high leverage intervention in a horrendous geo-political-spiritual struggle.

So powerful was the participant’s attachment to this strategy that he did not recognize that he was backing others into a corner.  During the break, Mitch went to try to intervene with the advocate of the press conference.  Realizing that no one yet had affirmed this individual’s deepest aspirations, Mitch conveyed his appreciation for the participant’s deep longing, and honored his heightened sense of destiny.  Mitch also affirmed this individual’s prowess with rhetoric and defense of ideas, and pointed out that the way he was advocating his proposal seemed to be pushing people away.  Building on earlier rapport and now as a partner supporting his deeper intentions, Mitch urged him to distinguish strategy (e.g., press conference) from intentions, and ask for help from the group to find actions commensurate with the urgent needs he perceived so strongly.

The participant softened immediately, and offered to share the realization of what he truly wanted to achieve with this group.  Shortly after this disclosure, the group moved on.  This incident was followed by a coalescing of the group’s sense of its own potential.  Several ‘presentations’, offered by different participants, captured different facets of what this community of leaders could become, and in fact, were beginning to embody.  Among the ideas which surfaced included:

  • A group like this could help to hospice outmoded ideas and patterns of interaction (social, political, economic, environmental), and ‘mid-wife’ new social narratives.

  • A diverse community of leaders can act as a Third Side, surrounding parties at odds and redefining the conflict.  Such a group could also build “golden bridges.”

This critical incident is indicative of the amazing weave of individual and collective formation.  The press conference proposal appeared at a defining moment in the life of one individual.  The group’s ability to coalesce its purpose to include the deeper aspirations embodied in the individual was a defining passage for the group.  The polarizations about calling a press conference or not eventually yielded to the group’s discovery of its own emergent potential, its historic opportunity and the first hints at what its methods might entail, such as taking a third side or golden bridge-building.

In addition to beginning to illuminate a purpose and role for the Synthesis group, this dialogue posed a question that touched each person deeply and provided a process whereby every voice could be heard.  We believe that the compelling nature of the inquiry as well as the field created made this possible.  Individuals and the group as a whole were held in love, and a way forward was found in the wisdom that emerged.

Opportunities for Individual and Collective Formation

When individual and group formation is an explicit aim, the gathering is designed to expose the individuals and the group to concerns for which there are no easy answers.  The aim is to provide an occasion for something new to be discovered, to take shape, and to be expressed (and experienced) in unprecedented, coherent action. 

When His Holiness The Dalai Lama said, “My nation is dying…I need your help.”, the stage was set for the group to confront a series of profound dilemmas.  No one knew in advance how to coalesce the group to respond effectively to His Holiness’s call for help.  The group learned from experience that the resolution of complex issues such as the conflict between China and Tibet depends on the formation of entirely new mythologies and associated patterns of behavior.  They recognized that actions based on the old story-line in which a leadership group would act as a “bully pulpit” to pressure China or the Vatican into any particular action would surely backfire.  Among the new ideas which flowed from the process were the following:  clearing the way for a “new tide” of thinking and acting; assuming the role of a “third side”; and building “golden bridges.”  These notions summoned potential that was already resident in the group but were not appreciated until there was sufficient loosening of people’s biases for historic or conditioned responses.

Designing a meeting to make room for imponderable questions and profound dilemmas seems risky on the surface.  Encounters with complex issues for which there is no known resolution often trigger deep emotional responses in the participants.  This is why most meeting conventions bypass or steer clear of these unknowns.  Even some facilitators who relish this terrain may lead the group into psychotherapeutic interventions in a vain attempt to release or “heal” the intense feelings generated.  Either way, the opportunity for formation is missed.  It is essential to provide an opportunity for the group to perceive what is ending or no longer effective.  This group confronted the limits of the line of thinking and imagery associated with a “bully pulpit.”  Once a group loosens its grip on historic or conditioned responses, a “clearing” emerges.  In this clearing, new possibilities can surface, take shape, be tried on for size, and tested for ripple effects.

The dialogue in Trent demonstrated that encounters with unsolvable dilemmas at the limits of participants’ habitual thinking and behavior can enable a positive outcome.  Every participant we talked to told us about deep personal epiphanies they experienced, and the group as a whole began to embody the kind of unprecedented, collective “container” as suggested in the imagery of a “third side” in the China/Tibet conflict.

Individual epiphanies were not limited to the content of the China/Tibet issue.  In fact, we discovered that parallel with the collective transformation that occurred among this community of leaders, we observed, in ourselves and in other participants, other, often surprising, openings for individual formation.  Alone, in pairs, and in small groups participants created quiet, focused, disciplined space to discern the questions, insights and new capacities being evoked by this gathering.  In our experience with gatherings of leaders across diverse settings, we have found that certain conditions correlate with opportunities for personal learning and development and that several forces work to support and, at times to evoke, opportunities for individual formation.  Some examples of these conditions include:

  • The issues or questions explored by the group exhibit dynamic complexity.

  • The group embodies radically divergent perspectives.

  • The context is created for deep intimacy, with generous space for differences.

  • Each person is listened to with love and respect. 

  • Personal agendas are set aside.

  • The field is open for genuine inquiry, as contrasted with serial monologues.

  • The flow of the agenda is spacious enough to allow for reflective time.

When these conditions are present, as they were at Synthesis II, the stage is set for deep personal epiphanies.  At the same time, challenges may arise that exceed participants’ current repertoire of responses. 

In the Synthesis II gathering one person shared a deep vocational dilemma with one of us who offered to be a reflective listener, asking only curious open questions to help him discern his own wisdom about the issue.  We were in conversation for over two hours in that way, the person with the dilemma opening his life story and heart to the listener and sorting the complexities and vulnerabilities that bring one to such a crossroads.  It was an incalculable honor to be able to hold a new friend at this depth, and to be thus entrusted.  Another participant revealed a life-long struggle to integrate her considerable intellectual prowess and productivity with her less developed, but no less powerful emotional sensibilities.  She found herself “tuning in” to deep affective currents or patterns in the group; and she sensed a way to help deepen the group’s inquiry, but only if she could access and utilize her less familiar emotional intelligence.  Like others who confronted similar challenges, this woman recognized that participation in the gathering seemed to require that she integrate or resolve interior dilemmas in order to truly “show up” and contribute as fully as she desired.

Others told us of similarly deep epiphanies and encounters of heart and spirit that had occurred for them.  Michael Beckwith shared the story of standing outside early one morning.  Others happened outside at the same time:  Tenzin Choegal, HHDL’s younger brother; Achok Rinpoche, Tibetan Monk and leaders of the Library of Tibetan Works, Dharamsala; A.T. Ariyaratne, social activist leader and Sri Lankan Buddhist; and Sulak Sivaraksa, Thai Buddhist leader.  The five men stood in the sunlight and shared stories about enlightenment, compassion, and love.  “It was a moment in which we caught the same picture and understood that we were doing the same work from different vantage points.  It was a moment of intimacy and I felt it affected all of us.  We met at our center, not at our surface.”

The Dialogue Extended

On one of the final days of the gathering, Mary Morrissey and Michael Beckwith were invited guests at a town meeting in Trent where the question on the table was “How do we harness the energy of love in this city?”  In her own home city of Portland, Oregon, Mary had helped a leadership group and the mayor address the question of “How do you stay in service in the midst of big problems?”  Mary said, “I understood that we can’t go to the level of the problem and solve it.”  Michael commented that the right question dissolves problems, saying, “We try to contain violence instead of asking what a kind and just society looks like, what love in our society looks like.”  At the individual level, people opened to love and experienced the connections that come from this opening.  We believe that for many participants, having the lived experience of an awakened world opened them to the possibility, the actuality of living in a different way—of being in the world in a different way.

The vision animating Synthesis Dialogues II called for a gathering that would “come alive” in a way that would lead to collective evolutionary work in the world.  AGNT envisioned a meeting where each participant could share the essence of their work and describe the partnerships yearned for—a meeting where leaders would be seen and blessed by each other and have the opportunity to form connections in service of their deepest shared aspirations.

The group achieved its purpose in the Trent gathering and is now poised to extend its potential as a powerful, loving community of international elders and leaders who have shared the experience of finding a new way and expressing the vision of unprecedented, coherent action.

[1] We would also like to express our appreciation for the contributions of Carolyn North, Karen Speerstra, and Diane Weston.  If this report accomplishes its aims and “comes alive”, it is thanks to their careful, evocative listening and insightful editing.

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