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Come Together: The Mystery of Collective Intelligence

Can we discover a depth of wisdom far beyond what is available to individuals alone?
by Craig Hamilton

Reprinted with permission from What Is Enlightenment? magazine; Feb–April 2004, pg.64–65.
© 2004 Moksha Press. All rights reserved. http://www.wie.org
For more on this subject, visit http://www.wie.org/collective


Chapter 4


Then another person stepped forward, and another, and another, telling their stories and offering their experiences and questions. I got this sense that there was a stew that we were making together. There was this cauldron in the center of the circle. . . . From the outside it might have looked like just a group of people talking. But it was totally magical. Toward the end, I would say something, and somebody across the room would say, “You know, I was thinking the same thing.”
                                          - Tom Callanan, Kalamazoo, MI

Anyone who hasn't been living in a cave for the past fifteen years has probably noticed the surge of interest in mind/body healing that has recently swept the West, and particularly the U.S. From PBS's immensely popular “Healing and the Mind” series with Bill Moyers to the superstar status attained by Deepak Chopra and Andrew Weil, we've seen the field of mind/body medicine gain a firm foothold in the modern psyche seemingly overnight. But what hasn't yet made it onto Oprah is the unique, catalytic, behind-the-scenes role that the Kalamazoo-based Fetzer Institute has played in this explosion. And, more importantly, what collective intelligence has to do with it.

A small, endowed foundation with a spiritual mission, Fetzer has, since its inception in 1962, earned a reputation as one of the primary sponsors of research into the upper reaches of human potential. But unlike most foundations, which issue grants to fund individual projects, Fetzer is what's known as an “operating foundation,” which means it takes a more hands-on—and more collective—approach. As program officer Tom Callanan explains it, “We proactively go out into a field and ask, 'How can we help advance this field?' We pull the leaders in the field together, and then instead of competitively giving grants to the best projects, we say, 'We're going to support a project to advance the field. How are we going to work together to do that?'”

As part of its mission to bring thought leaders together, in the mid-nineties Fetzer built a small conference center in southwestern Michigan, where it began to host a series of think tanks with the leading luminaries in mind/body health. The goal, Callanan explains, was “to create a container where breakthrough thinking could happen.” But as the discussions got under way, what soon became clear was that it takes more than great thinkers to make a think tank. As Callanan put it, “Good conversation doesn't just involve getting the best people in a room and saying 'Let's talk.'” Occasionally, an unexpected intimacy and vulnerability would emerge between the participants. But often the groups struggled to find cohesion. At times, something magical would occur, and a remarkable collective creativity would be unleashed. But at other times, the dialogues ended up being little more than a sharing of diverse ideas and opinions. They had all the ingredients of a good think tank. But for a foundation whose goal was to “support the cutting edge of individual and social transformation,” the results were too unpredictable.

It was out of this recognition that in early 2000, Fetzer launched a research project to begin to look for ways to increase the effectiveness of its dialogues and to deepen its understanding of the dynamics of group wisdom. What was this experience of “magic” that emerged when groups were at their best? What was the mysterious intelligence that often seemed to accompany it? And more importantly, what were the conditions that would make it more likely to occur? With these questions as a leaping off point, a handful of researchers began to pull together the fragments of a field still in its infancy, to see what had been learned by those who had already been working with group intelligence and how they could be encouraged to join forces to move the field forward.

It wasn't long before they realized they had gotten more than they had bargained for. Alan Briskin, an organizational consultant with a long history of working in groups, was one of the initial researchers on the project. As he explains it, “We began by simply seeking out people who we thought might be able to inform us about these questions, and the response was so enthusiastic that people not only welcomed the chance to talk about this, but they directed us to increasing numbers of people in the field. So the project that we had initially imagined would involve talking to maybe eight or nine people grew to over sixty interviews.”

The findings of that project were eventually published in a small, spiral-bound 2001 book entitled: Centered on the Edge: Mapping a Field of Collective Intelligence and Spiritual Wisdom. And according to Callanan, along the way, Fetzer learned enough about collective wisdom for its mind/body healing think tank “to become one of the collective wisdom engines of the mind/body health field.” For Fetzer, however, this initial foray would become but a catalyst for further exploration. Having come across a field that was ripe for pulling together, the research team, headed by consultant Sheryl Erickson, proposed a new, more comprehensive project that would not only document the body of knowledge that was surfacing but also would serve as a self-organizing structure around which the field itself could begin to take shape and move forward. Excited by what their initial inquiry had opened up, the foundation's board agreed, and the Collective Wisdom Initiative was born.

Visit collectivewisdominitiative.org and you'll find a wildly configured conglomeration of information on topics from collective intelligence to collective resonance to group synergy to group creativity. Go through one “doorway” and you'll land on a long string of “personal profiles” of people who work in the field. People like Jim Rough, whose pioneering “Dynamic Facilitation” process of dialogue has generated phenomenal breakthroughs in the most entrenched disputes. Or Tom Atlee, whose initiation into collective intelligence during the Great Peace March of 1986 inspired him to found the Co-Intelligence Institute, a networking and research organization committed to tapping group wisdom for social and political change. Click on another “doorway” and you'll find a series of interviews with people about their spontaneous experiences of collective wisdom and “flow”—from a Marine sergeant's description of the deep brotherhood he experienced with his platoon to a police officer's account of the “collective resonance” that enveloped her and all the other participants at a heated crime scene. On the “Concepts” page, you'll come across research papers and essays with titles like “Group Magic: An Inquiry into Experiences of Collective Resonance” and “Exploring Essence: Collective Wisdom and Group Experience.” Under “Social Applications,” you'll learn of an experiment in dialogue that brought together leaders on both sides of the abortion debate—with some surprising results.

Taking in the site as a whole, what becomes undeniably clear is that this phenomenon is real. It is happening. And it is more widespread than one could have imagined. What started as one foundation's attempt to increase its understanding of “group magic” has become a nexus for a thriving, connecting, and rapidly expanding community of individuals for whom furthering the advance of this new collective potentiality has become nothing less than a life's mission. Through their efforts, a growing body of knowledge is emerging about the mysterious ways in which collective wisdom works and how it can be cultivated, enhanced, and directed toward the greater good.

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