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[ from Grounded in Discipline, Open to Magic: Reflections on Synthesis Dialogue II, a report to The Fetzer Institute ]
The aim of this report is to help define and demystify how gatherings can generate “collective awakenings”. Reflecting on our lived experiences as coaches, participants, and observers of the Synthesis Dialogues II, and on our combined experience with groups that “come alive”, we articulate here six principles that seem essential underpinnings for transformational gatherings. These principles are like fractals in that they inform individual as well as collective possibility. We notice that we can apply each principle to our individual experiences, to our coaching partnership, and to our understanding of the gathering as a whole. Although validated by our own experience, we offer these as a work-in-progress. The “Haiku drawings” contributed by Penny Williamson represent the essence of each principle.
The metaphor, Grounded in Discipline, Open to Magic, came to Penny several months after the Trent gathering. She reports, “I had the experience of riding in a small plane with a pilot who wanted to introduce me to the ‘spirit of flying’. We began by spending an hour filing a flight plan and following an exacting checklist that included reviewing every piece of equipment, nut, bolt and screw to ensure that the plane was in perfect working order. I was then given a pair of headphones that allowed me to hear my colleague as he piloted the plane but which silenced all other noise.”
“In absolute quiet, we lifted off the ground and flew over the Puget Sound from Seattle to the San Juan Islands, about a 45 minute flight. Of course we paid careful attention to air control and to other planes in the sky, but that necessitated only a small part of our attention as we made our way over the water. The day was perfect: water sparkling, Olympic Mountains to the west and Cascades to the east in multi-layered clarity, blue sky turning pink as the sun began to set. I once lived on an island in the Sound, and have always felt a deep kinship with this place. It was thrilling. I was struck by the rigorous discipline needed to open to this magic, and realized the same was true in gatherings where individual and collective transformations are called forth. Magic doesn’t just happen. It takes discipline to ensure that the way is open for it.”
In Trent, the disciplines that informed this grounding work included:
Discipline helps to ensure magic will happen. Holding to this deceptively simple discipline allowed each person and the collective to experience the mystery of hearts opening, of wisdom emerging, of unexpected deep connections and friendships beginning.
When a group engages questions for which there are no easy answers and/or the group is attempting to discover or create something without precedent, participants are likely to encounter limits associated with their expertise, habits of thought, or even their current sense of identity. Such encounters with the edge of what is known or familiar can evoke challenging and contradictory sensations and feelings.
Throughout our involvement in the Trent gathering, we each experienced the dynamic flow between “being enough” and ‘asking for help”—acting with clarity, authenticity and personal conviction on the one hand, and seeking partnership, support and validation on the other. We observed this pattern in ourselves, and we noticed it in others. We also posit that living in this paradox is part of the human condition. We each have the capacity to bring our unique gifts to the world however, we may need each other to fully do so. Thus, the preconditions for creating the experience of an awakened world include:
We have the capacity to hold others and to be held in turn. As we helped to plan the details and flow of the Synthesis Dialogues II, we visualized the creation of “circles within circles”, each holding a part of the whole. The circle of the Dolomite Mountains that surrounded us in Trent graced us all, as did the loving care and gracious accommodations at the Focolare Center that hosted our gathering. We were all held by the music of Rickie Beyers Beckwith and Nawang Kechog, and by Nawang’s chanting. In our role as coaches we “midwifed” and “eldered” AGNT, holding each individual and the convening group as they discovered their full capacity. AGNT held and stewarded the large group, including attending to all of the logistics. And all of us were blessed and held by the compassion, the gravity and the lightness of His Holiness The Dalai Lama.
The human capacity of creating and holding space for others to show up as their best selves is not confined to roles. In the presence of such conditions, new relationships formed and old friendships were rekindled and strengthened. New insights and creative responses to decades-old problems also emerged. In the course of the week, we experienced and learned of myriad ways in which each person and each small group was held by others across all boundaries. Being held in love allowed all present to respond in kind to others around them. As one participant said, “In this community, people loved each other, and expressed that love. People were open and generous with each other and individual agendas were muted.”
Surrounding all that we brought to this gathering was the consistent and care-full attention of our Focolare hosts. The Focolare movement, founded in 1945 by a young Italian woman of Christian faith named Ciarra Lubitch, came into being amidst the rain of bombs on her beloved city of Trent. In the midst of the bombing she realized that the only way forward was love. Today the Focolare community is over four million strong throughout the world. Members of this intentional community staff the exquisite Focolare retreat center that hosted the Synthesis Dialogues II. From the first encounter, each member of the staff was responsive and gracious. They expressed shared understanding and profound resonance with the intentions of this gathering, and did all that they could to help us realize them. Each request was met with appreciative assistance. They paid attention to body as well as soul, providing wonderful food and wine and several evening concerts with exceptional local musicians.
A feeling of being deeply welcomed permeated the gathering. These loving people in this beautiful setting created a force field that held us all and allowed us to attend to the tasks of forming a community. We experienced again how valuable and helpful it is to have every facet, every element, every individual contributing in a resonant way to the purposes of the whole. Meeting within this community of radical love had a powerful influence on each of us and on the gathering itself. We don’t believe the same outcomes would have been realized in a typical hotel setting.
Recalling Ourselves to Our Highest Selves
If collective transformation is to occur, each group must find a way to recall its members to their highest selves, a way that is uniquely right for its members. Whenever people gather in service of forming a better world and create a field that invites each person in full voice, heart and spirit, transformation at an individual and collective level can occur. Holding this intention helps it happen.
There appears to be a paradox in this work. In addition to calling out the best in ourselves, the kind of open and inviting field in this type of gathering also opens the door to the fragmentation and incoherence present in the world and in each individual. As complex or controversial issues are explored, participants can become “triggered” or “carried away” by their own internal state or reactivity. These deep-seated, conditioned reactions can take many forms. A few common examples include rigidly defending a point of view, finding fault with the rationale behind someone’s comment, or feeling overwhelmed or “shut down”. Any of these conditioned reflexes can become problematic because the persons affected typically become dissociated from themselves, the group, and from the consequences of their behavior. While these reflexes or by-products may be desirable in a debate, these internal states must be handled differently in a dialogue.
At the Synthesis Dialogues II, a potentially fractious issue concerning whether or not to call a press conference invited controversy and triggered reactivity. Intense feelings brought the group to the brink of breakdown or breakthrough—to a pivotal point which would either see us revert to reliance on familiar forms of advocacy and contention or move toward awakened inquiry. Coaching interventions focused on recalling participants to their highest selves, and, thereby, enabled the group to coalesce at a new level of its creative power and potential.
Practices that encourage and enable participants (individually and as a group) to intentionally adjust how they use themselves—their physical-emotional-spiritual “instruments”—are extremely important. The goal isn’t to rid oneself or the group of challenging dynamics or powerful reactions. The key is being able to explore the implications in a way that sheds new light on long-standing problem frames. Individual participants and the group as a whole are strengthened when they engage in practices enabling inner clarity or help them to access their higher or more resilient selves.
Of the need for “centering” in group life, Lao Tzu had this to say in the 5th Century B.C.:
As previously indicated, a key enabling factor in recalling the group to its highest intention and individuals to their highest selves, emerged from the continuous process of stewardship-by-design. This process enabled the group leadership to re-focus on the highest intention, to re-commit to trusting one another, and to open to relinquish pre-conceived design in the interest of what is needed in the moment. Because the leadership was continuously centering and re-focusing in these private Stewards meetings, they were more receptive to finding the meaningful and appropriate means of re-centering the larger gathering.
At the Trent gathering, the repetitious chanting of “May all be kind to each other” served as a key to whole group practice. Also important, we believe, were the innumerable individual and small group practices employed throughout the day. Some gathered for yoga in the morning. Others walked or ran. People could be observed in quiet meditation, and conversations that exhibited self-disclosure and appreciative inquiry abounded at every break, meal, and into the evenings. These and many similar practices served as continuous preparations which enabled the group to respond to the opportunity present in the crisis. The presence of coaches, who are prepared to observe unfolding group dynamics from a formative perspective and who can hold the growth of the group as a higher intention than facilitators’ comfort, was a key enabling factor in the group’s transition from breakdown to breakthrough.
What is Ending, What is Emerging
In the simplest sense, the Trent group was participating in a dialogue intended to take them (as individuals and as a group) beyond the limitations of strongly held beliefs and assumptions, beyond the habitually familiar. By posing complex, challenging questions that cannot be solved by reliance on predictable structures, the group is moved beyond its familiar “comfort zone”. What is ending (often with considerable reluctance) is the old familiar narrative and its associated repertoires of response.
In our view, the group at Trent was participating in the rewriting of social and spiritual narratives where holy leaders were set apart and wisdom was seen to pass uni-directionally from the leader to the gathered participants. In Trent this narrative was re-experienced as the co-creative wisdom of a community of leaders.
The Trent dialogues also invited a collective “re-write” of the mythology of diversity. The group experienced release from rigid, fragmenting images of separateness and experienced the power of diversity’s potential. This was especially well illustrated in the instances where the insights of non-Western cultures proved to be fluent in languages of power which seldom inform Western constructions of power and politics. Also receding in the Trent dialogues was the assumption that a conflict between two parties is only about those two parties. This old assumption was replaced by the emergent perspective that what dispute arises between two parties affects us all. The experience of exploring the Third Side opened the group to what is emerging.
We are called to feel deeply what is ending and to attend to it, care for it, with deep compassionate appreciation. Both the appreciation for what is passing and the pain of losing it intensify. Our ability to feel what is being lost may seem unbearable.
While attending to the death of what is known we are also called to hold the mystery of what is emerging, embracing what is beyond death. The paradox of Tibetan tragedy is that something new is born, and the work of holding this paradox calls us to attend to this death and this new birth simultaneously. Tibetan exile involves incalculable human loss and suffering, yet one effect of this enormous loss is the infusion of Tibetan wisdom throughout the world. The rise of this Virtual Tibet calls us to a higher level of participation in this evolutionary process. We are the ones called to give shape to what is not yet seen.
Compelled to the Edge
Awakened gatherings are uniquely prone to taking people to the “edge”, enabling encounters at the brink of what is known and creating surprising tolerance for holding wrenching paradoxes. The stance and practices that support coming alive “at the edge” calls out for explication, yet we confess that it remains a somewhat puzzling, even mysterious phenomenon.
It seems certain that a group must attain a necessary level of committed intention to go to the edge. Such an intention, even if stated explicitly, can only become a claim when the group is ready. What constitutes this readiness to go to the edge? Almost every other Timeless Principle conspires to move the group toward readiness. All that is realized within the other Principles seems to compel movement to the edge.
One goes to the edge by building on all that preceded it and then adding a certain thoroughness of will—meaning a heightened pitch of desire. In gatherings of social significance conveners and participants are hungry to experience what is beyond. They have a feeling that something important is emerging and they are drawn to it.
Those who convene awakened gatherings do so to access the wisdom that
lies beyond us. No gathering intent on finding assurance in what we
already know could possibly find itself on the edge. The will and appetite
for the edge simply aren’t activated by conventional discussion or problem
solving. In awakened gatherings, conveners and participants begin to
access this point beyond by posing seemingly impossible questions, by
taking on issues of enormous complexity. “How can we help
The experience at the edge is uncomfortable. There is an intense personal encounter at the edge. In Trent, individuals arrived with deep affinities for their own religious or spiritual traditions. The way forward to the edge involved deepening the grounding, intensifying the appreciation for that tradition while, at the same time, asking more of it—asking to know what lies beneath all the combined traditions that needs to be known. Discomfort and stumbling blocks, experienced consciously, may actually serve to heighten our desire and readiness to come to the edge, and then soar.
We are called to be uncomfortable in a particular way, to refuse convention
in a particular way, to hold paradox in a particular way. Those called
to the edge assume a stance of “simple refusal” toward what seems certain
to others. For instance, non-cooperation with violence is a stance
of simple refusal. At Trent, the call to “Go to
These six TImeless Principles represent the guiding wisdom for leading groups toward awakened experience. They were fundamental elements of the Trent dialogues. Although future investigations may add to or modify these Principles, we posit that they are “six agreements” of awakened gatherings anywhere—the fundamental values that underlie and support any group experience of coming alive.
Although the Timeless Principles are essential to awakened gatherings, they are not, in themselves, sufficient to bring about the potent transformations entailed in awakened experience. Gatherings that come alive are enabled and supported by skilled implementation of integral leadership practices, such as convening, facilitation, and coaching. These skills and expert practices are often subtle and circumstantially evoked. They are, in effect, emergent in the processes of planning and convening. At the same time, they are forms of alert direction and guidance predicated upon particular experience, predilections and skill sets of practitioners.
Returning to the original questions that inform this report – “How might gatherings become formative influences in the lives of collectives and individuals?” “What works to bring gatherings alive?” “And, how can we access and share this living body of knowledge?”—we turn our focus toward the core learning gained from the examination of fundamental practices. In particular we look closely at the coaching function, the minimal conditions and practices for convening awakened groups, and the reciprocal dynamics of individual and group formation.
The Coaching Function
We frequently serve as coaches to complex organizations, leadership teams and individuals. However, the multifaceted role of coaching described throughout this report was new to us; and, as far as we know, it is relatively new to philanthropy and to the larger field associated with convening awakened gatherings and communities of diverse leaders. The benefits to conveners of the Synthesis Dialogues II are clearly documented in the preceding sections of the report and need not be repeated here. What may be less clear, however, is what was learned about the coaching function that can serve the Fetzer Institute as it contemplates future social venture investments on behalf of convening gatherings which advance collective intelligence.
We brought over thirty years of combined experience to the service of the Trent gathering, and, yet, we “made up” our role and our contribution as we went along. This skill of improvisation is actually crucial to the coaching function, as is the ability of coaches to operate on the margins – to be unseen yet continuously effective. Our key role – to bring out the skills of conveners and facilitators, to hold the group to its highest intention, and to recognize opportunity to move the group toward the “edge” – was successfully executed because we were able to combine our experiences appropriately and because we were well suited to the assignment in our values and styles.
In our view, coaching is of particular importance at this early stage of development of the field. Coaches can play a key role in advancing the skills of other practitioners in “real time” and contributing to the knowledge and theory that will emerge with successful future practice in convening awakened gatherings. Based on our experience at Trent and our combined experience with similar gatherings, we recommend a few guidelines that will bring maximum benefit in the employment of coaches for ongoing endeavors.
Coaching is best done in partnership. Considering the complexity of the work, and especially when conveners are inexperienced, partners are needed so that sufficient attention can be given to the micro- and macro-contextualizations of the gathering. Since coaches are learning continuously throughout the process, ongoing conversations between coach partners are necessary to facilitate learning and to maximize responsiveness to the emergent needs of the conveners and the group.
Coach partners must be well matched. Trust, mutual respect, sympathetic world views, and complementary skills and capacities portend an effective coaching partnership.
Coaches must be well suited to serve multiple roles. Throughout the process of convening awakened gatherings, well-prepared coaches must call upon multiple skills. Among the discrete skills needed to perform these many roles are the:
Coaches work to ensure that convening groups are capable of excellent facilitation. To do this well coaches must be skilled facilitators themselves, and they must also be competent at teaching through example.
Coaches must be able to integrate skills of coaching and facilitation while also serving in the role of astute participant observers. Particularly because this work of convening awakened groups is still emerging, the need for coaches who can assume a more distant observer perspective is considerable. The significant pioneering work of identifying principles and practices of convening awakened groups is very much a work in progress and coaches are in a position to make a unique contribution to this growing body of knowledge.
Coaches must be highly adept at design that enables movement toward the edge while also holding design lightly – willing to abandon plans for what emerges in the moment. Significant time for advance design and planning is crucial to the process, and the trust building which coaches can enable in the design and planning processes contributes to the ability of the group to abandon that carefully considered design at crucial moments in the convening process.
Minimal Conditions/Practices for Convening Awakened Groups
Convening awakened gatherings is a distinctive role involving specific skill sets, responsibilities and potentialities. Across settings and cultures, we have noted that principles of “awakened convening” establish expectations, attract and recruit the intended participants, and begin the important work of creating a group ethos. Mindful convening involves far more than simply organizing. It is exciting to anticipate a future of awakened gatherings that have been nurtured from conception in the spirit of mindful convening and facilitation. Core learnings that inform conditions and practices for convening awakened groups include the following:
Decisions and actions that precede a gathering are especially important. The potential for awakened experience is seeded during the planning and preparation stage. Grantmakers can assist at this critical stage by requiring from convening organizations clarity of expectations based on Timeless Principles and by recognizing and supporting ample time for advance preparations.
Planning develops congruent aspirations, desired outcomes and facilitation design. A good fit between intentions and processes is enabled by thorough advance planning with multiple conversations and meetings among conveners, facilitators, and coaches.
Enrollment is a vital convening function. It is essential to comprise the group with individuals who are open and ripe for deep learning. Conveners must dedicate considerable time and effort to discern which potential participants are likely to benefit from and contribute to the formative potential of the gathering.
Meetings that work call someone to something. A compelling reason or a specific challenge activates participants far in advance of the event. Participants are enrolled to contribute to a particular type of engagement – one that emphasizes inquiry, exploration and dialogue. They are invited to help enable a discovery or a new synthesis – something greater than the sum of their combined individual participation.
Conveners dedicate themselves to key tasks to ensure participants come with the proper “anticipatory mindset”. Conveners create a group ethos so that participants expect to:
Conveners and facilitators are adept at practices which continuously evoke the field of the gathering. Meetings work best when leadership is prepared to assume the role of skilled facilitation – perceiving, guiding, noticing the currents of group dynamics and changing conditions, and modeling the intention and ethos of the gathering. This requires a highly developed sense of process, a sense of attunement to surroundings, and a willingness to alter the course in unplanned ways.
The Reciprocal Dynamics of Individual and Group Formation
Formation refers to an event or ongoing learning process that contributes markedly to the maturation or transformation of an individual or a group. Essential character, attitudes, ways of being, even identity, are re-shaped as a result of formative experience. The kind of formation evoked by awakened gatherings takes on a quality of definition or “punctuation”. Something is altered or influenced so deeply that things are never the same again. There are shifts at the level of deep-seated reflexes, in habits of thought, and even in the images that frame and define experience.
These indicators of formative experience are true for individuals and for groups. There is every indication that, in awakened gatherings, there is a powerful dynamic of reciprocal formation between individuals and groups. Inherent in these interdependent processes of collective and individual formation is the possibility of evolution to higher orders of resolution or breakthrough or collective intelligence. We believe that formation via gatherings is an emerging discipline. This work could be thought of as the art and science of intentionally altering the trajectory of history while simultaneously preparing people for new capacities, roles and responsibilities. Understanding is still needed concerning how to best design, convene, and facilitate gatherings which provide optimum opportunity for individual and group formation and which also create the optimum conditions for the reciprocal dynamic to raise the energy of the group. Here we offer insights concerning what we have learned about formation and about this mutually enhancing dynamic.
Social events and gatherings are the appropriate staging ground for formation. Gatherings and rituals have served this function for millennia across cultures. We believe this is so because humans do not enter the world as fully formed adults, nor do they achieve “completion” at any stage of life. Instead, we are social beings who grow, learn, and redefine who we are throughout the life cycle. Ongoing dialogue with self and others in the midst of evocative life experiences energizes formation.
Formative discovery involves a new societal narrative that evolves from the mutually enhancing work of social and group transformation. The implications of emergent narratives and their associated repertoires challenge us to reconsider old, familiar stances and to come up with new responses. New imagery suggests unfamiliar behavior. There is a need to know more about what is involved as new stories assert themselves. There is also much to learn about the ongoing incubation and maturation of new myths, imagery and corresponding institutional forms.
A gathering approached from a formative perspective serves the maturation of individual participants and the group as a whole. Maturation involves:
Some formation experiences evoke or call forth more learning, more change, than others. What are the elements of design and group experience that intensify transformation? When is there a need for incremental movement toward transformation, and what conditions enable a punctuated leap forward (or upward)?
Transformation is experiential. When a group finds its way into a collective experience of transformation, it goes beyond talking about something. Collective transformation relies on learning from experience through practicing new behaviors, testing future scenarios, experimentation with models, altering images, and other means. More insight is needed into the full repertoire of experiential learning modalities that could serve to instigate transformation. The repertoire of experiential modalities to promote transformation should access wisdom of human cultures throughout the world.
Formation happens in an environment that focuses intention on purposes larger than one’s own, or any parochial, interests.
Formation experience may deepen or extend potentials already awakened or evoke new, fresh potentials. In either case, it is important to know more about how practice, infrastructure, and on-going communication can strengthen and extend the “awakenings”. Gatherings often serve as “rites of initiation” for participants. However, there is critical formation work required beyond the “awakening” stage.
Formative experience requires the enhancement of intention and design. We know that in conventional gatherings, the transformative dynamics may be seen as unintended consequences, are usually NOT provided for in design, and most frequently are either not noticed or are avoided. How can we use design as a means of creating and enhancing transformative potential?
Individual and group formation are mutually enhancing. We know that by amplifying the power of individuals, we experience breakthrough to new insights – insights which are emergent in the process, highly dependent upon each individual bringing his or her best to the dialogue, and empowered by the receptivity of the collective. Similarly, as the group calls the collective to a higher order of experience, individuals open to a higher order of experience within themselves.
Working within Timeless Principles stimulates this reciprocal dynamic of formation. Working within Timeless Principles means a “lively commitment” to them.
Design for the possibility of formation is essential, yet we cannot always plan for formation. Finding a way forward in group process, creating opportunities for group formation at the next highest power of collective wisdom, is an important and desired dynamic of awakened gatherings. While it is a desired outcome in such gatherings, such group awakenings cannot always be planned for as culminating events or as predictable occurrences at key points on the agenda. Nonetheless, design for formation is an essential aspect of the planning process, and intentional design elements give transformative moments “someplace to go”. Some elements of design to help this happen include allowing time for individual reflection, providing competent facilitation with individual crises and breakthrough moments, and providing means of calling the group back to highest intention. More work is needed to identify reliable design principles.
Conveners and practitioners can help facilitate transcendent group experience. Those in positions of leadership, facilitators and coaches especially, should be adept at recognizing indicators of potential transcendence even in the most unlikely and difficult moments. They must be able to hold this potential in a way that enables participants to respond collectively in creative ways. Though more insight is needed on this matter, we recognize some key coaching and facilitating skills which help make this happen:
Clearly the Core Learnings we put forward here raise more questions than they answer. That is the nature of vibrant, new fields of enquiry. To expand the body of Core Learnings, additional awakened practice and observation in the field, in contexts of intentionally designed awakened gatherings, is needed.