Category Archives: Empathy

An essay on collaborative stewardship

This morning, when completeing an application for Heterodox Academy (which was just accepted by the Membership Committee), I was responding to this question:

“How are you fostering viewpoint diversity on your campus, in your classroom, or through your work? What challenges have you faced, and what is at stake? What is an example of constructive disagreement leading to a better outcome as part of a group or project? We want to hear your story.”

Pondering how I might answer this question, it occurred to me that now is the time for me to publish the working draft of an essay I began writing six years ago called “All Shine: How Collaborative Stewardship Built a Vision”. This essay describes the processes involved in collaborative projects and communities and explores the connections between openness to a variety of world views and communication styles, leadership theories, multi-perspectivalism, and the human elements involved in creating something in the world in concert with others.

The essay describes the process of making an album of original music I wrote. The album is called Eleventh Hour Shine. Although most of the project was largely self-funded from savings, our project’s main architects successfully launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2014 to bring the project to the finish line.

The writing of the essay was not easy for me, as it also describes the sudden death of a person dear to me in 2013. As that death involved the shooting of an unarmed person by a state trooper, and due to the heated national conversations around this topic, I’ve kept it hidden away for the past six years. In light of recent world events and the polarization and fear that is spreading throughout the world, I think it’s time for me to be open about this event rather than to continue burying it because -whether I like it or not- it’s part of my story and is intimately connected with my work as an educator. Part of that work involves the advocacy of viewpoint diversity, ideological flexibility and the importance of promoting authentically open communication which requires, humility and empathy -two qualities that seem to have disappeared into the night.

The last few chapters of this essay are unfinished, as I was still reeling from this person’s death at the time and could not find the heart space to bring the essay to a satisfying (authentic and unforced) conclusion. It is likely that some of the ideas explored in the essay are over-stated or incomplete, as my thinking on some of the topics and frameworks I covered in this writing has evolved quite a bit over the past few years.

However, my principles have remained the same, even while the world around me and the people in it have seemingly been altered beyond recognition.

Eleventh Hour, indeed.

Below is the link, which can also be found in the menu heading, “Writings“.

DISCUSSION NORMS IN A POLARIZING AGE

Taking into consideration the rise in intergroup hatreds that has come about in recent years, an online discussion group I participated in adopted discussion norms. Though I created the first draft, the language and wording was vetted by others.

These norms are not meant to be taken as hard, rigid rules but as a guide for facilitating meaningful, fair dialogue and problem-solving in difficult conversations.

BRIEF OVERVIEW OF NORMS

1. Inquiry Balances Advocacy means to practice being open about others’ perspectives and experiences and to hold back from advancing our own view without listening to others.

2. All Topics Discussable means that we won’t shut down any topics unless they advocate violence against individuals or groups of people. This also means we won’t ridicule or dismiss an idea or topic as unworthy of our consideration.

3. Evidence and Facts over Narratives means that we commit to backing up our claims and don’t rely on popular narratives, authority of certain authors and books or even ideologies to make our points.

4. Labels Stigmatize means that we commit to avoid name-calling in all its forms

5. People are Individuals means that even if the ideology we follow groups people together and assigns characteristics to entire identity groups, we try to experience individuals as themselves rather than as representatives of a group.

FULL DESCRIPTIONS OF NORMS

Inquiry Balances Advocacy
Open-minded inquiry is a challenging task in a community, whether it’s a social media group, a church, school, company or any other group in which people come together to talk or to get things done. We can set a reasonable standard for discussions by balancing the desire to advocate our own positions with the commitment to inquire into the positions of others. Demonstrating curiosity and interest in other views can help to build relationships with the people we are talking with, build mutual understanding, and foster new learning and growth for all parties. Engaging others with an inquiring attitude is not the same as relentlessly interrogating to find fault.

Patterns to Look For: Immediate shutdown when opposing viewpoints are expressed; Endless repetition of one’s own views without acknowledging other views; Not asking an opponent (or participant) to explain his/her/their/xir reasoning during discussion; Controlling the conversational space to advance one’s point of view; Refusing to offer one’s thinking or reasoning (e.g. Because it’s 2018, that’s why!);Relentless interrogating to find faulty logic or morals instead of genuinely inquiring into another’s view(s); Name calling; Justifying, rationalizing, defending, Ignoring proposed alternatives to existing frameworks, Not acknowledging the reasoning of opposing viewpoints; Using the tactic of stony silence to express disapproval (in person); Choosing not to respond as a tactic to leave opponents feeling “out in the cold”

All Topics Discussable
Welcoming all topics for consideration is important because undiscussed topics can have a potentially devastating impact on goals, relationships, and outcomes on all scales, including relationships, communities, neighborhoods, towns, cities, states, nations, and the world). As we have seen throughout the centuries and in our personal, professional and political lives, all issues will come to the surface somehow and in some way, no matter how much we have succeeded in suppressing them. Preventing, ameliorating, handling, or healing conflict in all its forms requires that a community actively works to place all views -even unsettling or uncomfortable views- on the table.

Patterns to Look ForHow dare you bring that up; That is inappropriate; That’s bigotry! (without investigating the claim); You’re just playing the victim; We already figured this out, no more dialogue; You’re centering yourself [or your tribe] in this conversation!; Your issue is self-serving because you’re privileged!; This problem isn’t even a “thing”; This issue is not that serious; You have no right to mention this problem; Your feelings as an oppressor will not be discussed or even recognized; How dare you try to silence other voices by asking us to listen to yours?

Evidence and Facts Over Narrative
Narratives are important, but they are not sufficient as arguments unless they are backed up by evidence and facts. It is best to start with evidence and facts and to search for patterns based on additional evidence and facts to formulate a strong and credible narrative or theory (inductive) than to start with a narrative based perspective based on biases and desired outcomes and searching for evidence and facts to justify the narrative (deductive). In the age of “fake news”, propaganda and extremely adversarial one-sided narratives that are often unsupported by hard data, we need to maintain intellectual rigor in conversations and dialogues that aim to discover credible truths and workable solutions.

Patterns to Look For: Unwillingness to step out of one’s own experience or set of beliefs about the world to truly listen to what others are saying; Reluctance to hear questions or challenges to the narratives we have either read about, inherited or formulated in our own minds to explain the world; Refusal to change our mind’s about phenomena when we have been presented with new variables and compelling evidence or hard data that challenges our narrative; Staying committed to a narrative that is unsupported by hard evidence -especially when the narrative pushes a view that is adversarial against specific groups of people based on their socio-cultural characteristics (.e.g. Jewish Zionist conspiracy theories advanced through Nazi Germany’s propaganda machine)

Labels Stigmatize
Stigmatizing people with labels can be helpful when we know with certainty that the labels are accurate. However, when over-applied, stigmatizing labels cause the targets of labeling to either double down or leave the conversation or relationship altogether. Using labels (whether sincerely or manipulatively) effectively discredits people (usually with an opposing or simply different framework or set of beliefs) and serves to shame or frighten others into silence. If circumstances arise in which a person’s view can be reasonably assumed to be biased or bigoted, it is helpful to describe the real world impact of actions carried out in accordance with the offending views and the impact of the views themselves than to use name-calling.

Patterns to Look For:Unfounded accusations of some form of ”ism”, of holding immoral beliefs, or of having a disagreeable character or moral foundation instead of addressing the substance of the argument. Examples: Cuck! Bleeding heart! Oppressor! Racist!, Colonizer! White Supremacist!, Homophobe!, Transphobe!, Sexist!, Ableist!, Social Justice Warrior!, SJW!, Right Wing Nut Job!, Garbage person!, Libtard!, Lefty Fascist!, Race-baiter!, Feminazi, b****ch, Cis-het!, Cis!, White Male!, negative, divisive [if not actually divisive], crybully, bully, angry (discrediting the “tone” without acknowledging the message), troublemaker, self-righteous, opinionated; arrogant; liberal elite; stupid conservative; idiot; loser

People Are Individuals
This is very simple. In this highly polarized era in which identity and demographic groups are in continual conflict, the commitment to treat people as individuals is key. While many ideological frameworks across the political, social, philosophical, and religious spectrum suggest a homogeneous, one-dimensionality on the part of specific groups of people, many of the claims are not supported by scientific evidence. Though there are cultural meta-patterns and generally predictable belief systems and culturally-based behaviors in all groups, it is best to suspend judgment about individuals we are relating to and to keep an open mind

Patterns to Look For: Expecting others to speak for or to represent their demographic identity group, based on age, gender, skin color, race and ethnicity, religion, body type and size, physical ability, political affiliation or other factors; Relying on generalizations about individuals based on the socio-cultural groups they are perceived to (or actually) belong to; Discrediting statements and beliefs from individuals based on the demographic group they are perceived to (or actually) belong to

A Seeker’s Guide to Teaching: A Great Resource

In 2009 I discovered a website called “The Guru’s Handbook”. For a good four years this site provided a nourishing influence for my teaching life, and I would drop in on the site from time to time to take in some of the insights on the deeper interpersonal (and perhaps transpersonal) dimensions of teaching practices.

After taking a sabbatical in 2012 to pursue creative writing and music projects, I fell out of touch with the website. When I returned to teaching full-time in 2015, I noticed with great disappointment that the original site was gone.

Though I searched for the author, Asher Bey, I could not find anything beyond 2013, even on the site’s Facebook page. I even searched for the URLs on the Internet Archive Wayback Machine but only came up with the defunct URLs for the individual blog posts -which appeared to be no longer available as actual posts.

By chance, I decided to follow a hunch and to comment with a question on the Guru Handbook Facebook page, expecting no answer, as the page had been inactive for a long time.

And I received an answer -presumably from Asher Bey. It turns out that the site had moved to a WordPress.com format, and, after spending some time with it, I can see that all of the original writings from the other site are included.

Over the years, I’ve come to see that it doesn’t matter how many people are reached. It only matters who. With this in mind, I am delighted to share the site with whomever comes across this blog post.

If even one person absorbs even the vague after-scent of the wisdom  offered in these writings, so much the better for the students who come into contact with them.

And so much better for the world.

https://gurushandbook.wordpress.com

The Non-Sectarian Principle

When I was 17, I got my first taste of the sectarian mindset when I read this book called “Why I am a Nazarene and Not a….”. The title of this book and its contents went on to bullet point why a Nazarene should not be a… Mormon, Roman Catholic, Jehova’s Witness, Seventh Day Adventist, Christian Scientist, and so on.

This was the beginning of a decades-long interest in studying different systems of belief and thought and a never-ending fascination with the question of how human beings could ever seriously consider that their own ideological framework -with its special language, concepts, practices, beliefs and unique package of enemies to fight against- could be the ONE true secular or spiritual path in history to offer liberation and harmony.

Curiously enough, many movements, including highly structured political movements and their powerful religious cousins, seem to always have a place for condemning heretics, dissidents or simply those who have found a different path or see a different perspective, which suggests a lack of real faith in the system that is being defended.

It is often said in wisdom traditions across the world that transformative change and its outward expression is intimately bound up with our own individual liberation from all forms -including the forms of personal narratives, political systems, socio-political identities, ideological beliefs and even justice work (whatever we take that to be) that we have attached ourselves to and have formed our identities around.

I make no claims here to be a liberated person (anyone who has experienced my hypomanic, passionate outbursts, knows I’m not). And I surely do get caught up in my own paradigms, beliefs, ideas, group loyalties, and unresolved personal narratives.

But, I can’t shake the idea that if we confine ourselves to working for the liberation (or simply for the interests) of only our own individual selves, our own tribes, or our own communities or even nations, we wind up trapping ourselves in a never-ending cycle of self-justification, hatred of an enemy, and the constant pressure of having to check back in with the values that have been handed to us, to make sure for ourselves and prove to others that we are on the right path.

I don’t think we can avoid living in the world without frameworks, communities, principles, beliefs, commitments and individual and collective actions against injustices.

But, I suspect that stepping out from these frameworks and looking at the raw data of our inner and outer experience might lead to a more invitational approach to the world, less hatred against one-dimensional enemies, and the discovery of a natural sense of kinship and harmony.

Peacemaking Is Not Cool Anymore. It Needs to Be.

We live in a troubling time where racial strife and polarization between social movements and identity groups are combined with a belief among many of these groups that permanent anger and hatred against a one-dimensional enemy is the only authentic response available to us.

One need only log onto Facebook for ten minutes to learn that peace and love just aren’t cool any more.

In recent years the phrase “peacemaking” and the practice of nonviolence have become distorted in many circles -including social justice activist communities- to mean the acceptance of injustice and an attitude of wanting to stay comfortable and look the other way when people are getting hurt.

When defined in this way, most decent people would agree that peace is not a defensible aim.

Some believe that engaging with the enemy is giving the enemy legitimacy and power. They consider this engagement to be a form of “coddling” or a kind of appeasement of the sort that British Prime Minister Lord Neville Chamberlain is said to have pursued when he signed an agreement with Hitler allowing Nazi Germany to annex other lands. 

Others insist that we be more militant and refer us to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letters from a Birmingham Jail” where he expressed disappointment in “white moderates” who were more interested in being comfortable and supporting the status quo than they were in pursuing social change at a pace that King felt was desperately needed.

These two historic examples and many more are frequently cited to justify the reigning culture of malice that we have come to see in both the discourse and protest tactics of the hard left and in the sociopathic cruelty of the hard right.

But, King was no Lord Chamberlain. When he spoke of militancy in that letter from his jail cell, he reminded us that when militancy becomes the only strategy left to us, it must still be grounded in love.  In the words below that King spoke in another context,  he makes this point very clear:

“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

Power, love and justice are all connected and cannot be morally or logically separated from one another.

If any one of these elements are missing in our struggle, we are lost.

Bettering in Our Own Time

*NOTE: My friend gave me permission to re-post something  he wrote onto my own social media page. At the time of this posting, I have not yet gotten his permission to post it here. But, I love this and it speaks for me, so I want to share it.

Our country was founded on the radical proposition that everyone is born equal, and should receive equal treatment under the law. Even from the very beginning we did not live up to that ideal in practice and actual governance, but our history has been one of slow, stepwise, painful movement toward it.

Too slow, and too many moments of backsliding, for far too many people who deserve better. But we cannot give up, unless we want to give up on what being America really means.

Certainly the founders had many notions of the limits of equality and citizenship that no longer apply, nor should they. They lived, as we all do, in a particular moment in time, and could no more escape history than a fish can escape the ocean. And the effects of those mental and political blinders were very, very real for the people left out of their limited concept of what equality should mean.

But there was, I think, an entelechy to the ideas worked out in the Constitution and other founding documents, that goes beyond that moment in time and its limitations. It was an idea too radical for a bunch of white, male, very well-to-do property owners, whose only model of governance was the divine rule of kings, and whose implicit idea of society was deeply hierarchical in nature, to bring to full fruition. But they wrote something down, and whatever it meant to them, it continued to resonate down through the generations and inspire not only the powerful but also the rest of us to do better.

(Equality is still a radical idea: each time we expand the circle of equality and fairness, we realize there is another circle beyond that. Our grandchildren will probably have difficulty understanding our own mental and societal limits on true equality.)

So, I understand [people’s] objection [to having pride in American heritage], and I think it’s well worth raising. I won’t try to convince [them that they’re] wrong and I’m right. I’ll just say that I believe it’s possible to be both critical of the history of our nation and at the same time see it as something worthy of inheriting and bettering in our own time.

 

A Breeze of a Thought For a Departed Friend

I was just browsing in a second hand store looking through antique photos and feeling a little contemplative about the passing of time, people, and all phenomena.
 
A breeze of a thought came to me as this lovely older gender non-conforming brilliantly loop-earringed white-haired man was carefully wrapping up the picture frames I bought. Here is that breeze of a thought….
 
“Hello, dear friend who recently exited my life, our lives, and this world. I think I have to admit that my life has become anemic and sometimes spirit-less without your nuanced intelligence and appreciation for precious objects and the care-taking of uniqueness …. You, the archiver of all things, the curator of a great collection of beautiful minds, and a fearless investigator into all realms of knowledge and experience. It was an honor to know you.”
 
And here I am, practicing patience, setting aside my time to make room for this lovely gender-non conforming, brilliantly white haired, loop-earringed man to carefully wrap picture frames I would just as easily have thrown into a bag to be on my gloomy way. I desired for him to enjoy the pleasure of investing care into what he regarded as precious. I think my departed friend would have wanted that for him, too.
 
Ah, yes, the lovely details of the present moment. The honoring of people who cross out paths. And the welcoming of new, high caliber friends who help us to make the unbearable bearable.
 
This is not a Mournday. It is a Moonday. As the tide rises and falls with the Moon, so my heart closes and opens in proportion to my fortune of knowing and being in communication with great, great hearts.
 
Happy Monday, friends new and old.

Peace for Self, Not The Only Path

Recently I’ve been reading spiritual posts and commentary in various online social media groups.  In these kinds of threads, I am frequently reminded of the conflict between “man of the world” and “man of the spirit” and find myself puzzled about how to integrate the two. Many people who consider themselves to be on the spiritual path will suggest that we learn to allow space for violence, cruelty, social unrest, systems of inequality and preventable suffering. The idea goes that individuals must become enlightened  to the true nature of Existence if they are to have any genuine impact.

Three years ago, I was in dialogue on a social media site about the issue of police brutality (which at the time was an issue I was strongly interested in). The commenter I was speaking with suggested that people stop reading the media stories about police brutality and learn to be peaceful within themselves, instead of getting too preoccupied with injustice. The commenter when on to state that withdrawal and meditation was the way towards peace and “raising the collective consciousness of humanity.”

The idea that personal peace and enlightenment must be reached before we seek any meaningful change in society is an old and stubborn one. Looking within and not getting involved in the outer world is said to be compassionate because it can be transformative for the individual. I can appreciate this view and to some degree I think it’s useful to become aware of our patterns and not to react automatically to outer circumstances or events. Even more, I appreciate the healing and insight that comes from meditation and learning to be open-heartedly present to our immediate experience.

But, I think the form of “transcendental stewardship” where we disengage from the world’s problems and go deeper into the impersonal, spiritual realms of consciousness is only one of the ways in which we can contribute to healing, wholeness and the relief of suffering. Without recognizing, addressing, and alleviating the traumatic conditions we have the power to influence, it seems to me that we abandon fellow sentient beings to conditions that are not favorable to the “awakening” of consciousness or spirit. Traumatizing events can hold people back from the luxury of even considering the possibility of a benevolent underlying spiritual force. This is especially true for people who experience the ongoing traumatization of being held in captivity in abusive situations such as tyrannical governments, relationships with violent intimate partners, and the slow inner death of working in a toxic workplace environment.

Trauma in all its forms keeps people far away from the spiritual aspect of things. Being peaceful, watching one’s thoughts, and merging with the lovely one-ness of it all is a far-away fantasy for victims of violence and cruelty, and it’s fair to keep that in perspective when we want to remind people of the ultimate and fundamental goodness of reality and the illusion of the life of ego.

I think if we are serious about the project of raising the “collective consciousness”, we would want to do our part to relieve the traumatizing circumstances experienced by other people, so that they might be able to sit down and be with themselves and allow their minds to let go into the present moment. We would want to participate in changing systems that systematically cause harm to people. We would want to at the very least acknowledge the circumstances people are in and hold back from criticizing people for not being spiritual enough.

A question arises. Should we expect ourselves to not have emotional reactions to external phenomena? Is that somehow an indicator of the level of a person’s enlightenment? If I can watch the graphic depiction of police brutality in the video below with non-reactive awareness, I can imagine that my actions in the real world will be more proportionate, efficient and unclouded by messy emotions. Perhaps, my actions might be objective and not volatile.  Then again, there may be a place in within transcendental awareness for experiencing -and not rejecting or judging- outrage, anger, anguish, grief, and interpersonal empathy when darkness and violence arises in our experience.

Not to participate in necessary change may be the right choice for spiritually enlightened individuals who have come to transcend human worldly concerns, having come to identify completely with Spirit, or Consciousness, etc. But, for those of us still hanging on at the sides of the mountain, the choice to participate in alleviating the dark circumstances of other sentient beings is a choice that is as right as rain.

Warning: The video below depicts NYPD officers throwing a pregnant woman onto her belly and shoving another woman hard enough to hurl her across the concrete, breaking her arm. As an exercise, I watched the video, breathed calmly and took note of emotional reactions as they arise in different parts of my body.

The Postmodern Fallacy of Dominance

I wrote this on a social media thread, and chose to use ALL CAPS as a metaphor for the theme of domination and power that I was exploring. I have been influenced to use ALL CAPS in a non-angry way by another writer whose writing on philosophy and spirituality is superb. Somehow his capitalized expressions do not come across as yelling but as emphasizing (as if italicized).

*********
So, this philosopher Derrida is very popular with the young activist crowd (and some old ones, too). He’s the guy who made an IDEA extremely popular… the idea that all systems, relationships and momentary exchanges are hierarchical in nature and are rooted entirely in POWER dynamics and the drive to DOMINATE.

Derrida went on to exhort us all to FLIP the hierarchy at every possible turn. In other words, we are called to reverse the power dynamics at all times… moment by moment… individuals and systems.

With this premise, it’s perfectly understandable why entire frameworks are created with a straight-out-of-the-gate adversarial stance against “the other” and the feverish drive to “dismantle” all things created and to win back the power that was stolen.

But, a question arises.

What if the original premise is incorrect? What if some -or perhaps many- people simply interacted with us out of the desire to connect? What if some -or perhaps many- people recognized differences in wealth, fortune and status between them and us and desired to share at least part of what they have with us? What if some -or perhaps many- people are simply not AWARE of these differences or how they fail to SEE us or our suffering and oppression?

What if the central premise of POWER and domination being at the root of all systems and relationships is not entirely accurate? What if this premise is just an INVENTED position based from painful personal experience and not a DISCOVERED pattern based on objective observations over time?

I ask this, because I have seen so many other premises (or operating PRINCIPLES) driving the behaviors and creations of individuals, communities and even entire systems…. lust, desire, longing, existential despair, desire for comfort, winning, striving for excellence, creating beauty, new discoveries, the seeking of justice, intentional ignorance of unpleasant realities, fear of death…. turning away from abuses…. and so forth.

Then there is the wondrous delight of building, innovating and creating….. and the ancient, universal and natural patterns of loving, belonging and nurturing…. so, so, so, so, SO much more to all of this than the Game of Thrones.

At least that has been my experience.

In recent years, I’ve seen relatives killed with bullets by law enforcement, dear friends lost forever to addiction, abuse and cruelty, students stabbed to death and shot outside their homes, liars getting away with lies, and the emergence of a culture of ridicule that demands that we diminish the all too real suffering of those whom we stand against.

And, yet I still cannot get behind the idea that life is all about domination, oppression and control. I believe in the goodness of people, even now.

What if re-designing and re-purposing lazily and selfishly designed systems for the betterment of all involved at least some degree of kinship with “them”… if only in the secret chambers of our minds?

What if a person who writes out ideas and questions like these doesn’t have any answers or solutions at all?

What if the answers we find in writers and thinkers lead us further away from ourselves and from one another?

What if this is all just an addiction to “the fight” to escape ourselves?

Human Rights: Allies and the Practice of Human Dignity

I have a friend who is a little older than I. He has been involved in activism for marginalized communities for decades now, and I consider him a mentor, as he is always on top with the most up-to-date trends and learnings within the larger human rights universe.

Just a year ago, my friend turned me onto this essay, which is one of the best and most authentic pieces I have ever read on the subject of building alliances towards the goal of attaining a society based on equality and rights for all. I would like to see this article become a required text for young people learning about human rights, race, gender, LGBTQ+ issues and equality. It would go a long way in softening the unnecessary adversarial stance against majority identity groups and reducing the dehumanization and stereotyping of “the enemy”, those who belong to groups we have deemed to be privileged.

 Activist leaders and progressive educators exercise immense power and influence over young, impressionable people searching for purpose and belonging, and it seems important to be responsible with that influence by teaching compassion alongside outrage.
 
Treating allies with dignity is not coddling or kowtowing to power, entitlement, or privilege. It is the call to practice the principles we wish to promote in the world. As this essay tells us, authentic activism that  embodies its vision is a disciplined political commitment to work steadily towards the building of coalitions and lasting relationships that will help us arrive at the place we want to go.

Because in the end, as the author reminds us…. love is thicker than blood.
 

In Praise of Allies: Wherever we’re going, we’ll only get there together