Refugee children crossing our border and U.S. citizens trying to block them, Israelis and Palestinians, the Republicans and Democrats in Congress, Russians and Ukrainians, the Shias and the Shiites, Christian and Muslim. The list goes on as I ponder the atrocities that are continuing in the name of God, of country, of truth, of self-defense. In most cases there is no capacity to listen to the other, to engage the other, and so the stalemate continues and the violence increases. Locked into separate silos there is apparently no connection, no relationship.
But I know that is not who we are or how we have to be. Both our faith and science tell us we are all connected; we have all come from a single common ancestor; we all come from star dust. Yet, we continue to look at crises situations from the same level of consciousness that got us there. A consciousness rooted in worldviews of separateness, might makes right, scarcity and competition, belief that one’s tribe, one’s faith, one’s ideology is better than any other. The solutions spun from such worldviews have not and will not cross these divides and offer new ways of imagining our world.
I agree with so many thinkers today that we are living in a pivotal moment of our evolutionary history. It is not unique but it is our moment. System thinkers refer to it as the chaos point when all the old ways and structures are facing breakdown or breakthrough. I believe as people of faith living in this chaos point there is an invitation to risk new responses that engage the differences we experience and begin to build trust among us once again.
Although not of the same magnitude as the situations I named but perhaps a microcosm of what I’m trying to say is this following example. When I was in Washington, D.C., with NETWORK, I was working on an amendment that we were sponsoring to the Coop Bank Bill. The main committee we worked with was the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee. I spent a good deal of time discussing the issue with the staff person for the chair of the committee, an extremely conservative senator. He had many questions about the effect this bill would have on small business. After each exchange in which he raised an issue I would contact the NETWORK members in his state or activists on this issue who could help me find out the information requested.
I took seriously each of his concerns and he in turn respected the data that I was able to gather from local areas. This back and forth helped to shape the final language of the amendment. On the day of the vote this senator voted in favor of the NETWORK amendment. I remember sitting in the Senate gallery and catching the eye of the aide expressing in my smile gratitude for his working with me and believing what I offered. Later that year a conservative group put out their annual voting record. This particular senator always received a 100% ranking from them. This year he didn’t. They counted this amendment as one of the votes, and his vote supporting it cost him his perfect score.
I offer this example because what I believe happened is that the aide and I began to trust each other. We were both willing to acknowledge that the positions and the questions on both sides were legitimate. I didn’t dismiss them or give up on this senator, rather I took the concerns seriously and did what I could to find out whether or not they were real and would hurt these other constituencies. The senator in turn trusted his aide and was willing to buck his usual supporters and vote on an amendment that would be used against him when the voting record was issued. That happened in the late ‘70s, and it pains me to see how that kind of working together across ideologies is close to impossible today. But it took time, respect and eventually trust to move beyond held positions. It takes time to believe in new data that conflicts with what you think, to entertain a different solution and to risk standing with a group with whom you usually are opposed.
Certainly what we face today is far graver and more complicated than this example. But I see the outline of how a sustained practice of contemplation opens you to wanting not only to listen differently to others but also to engage them in new ways as well.
This way of engaging might be described as real dialogue. When the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue began, the design team and I drew on the work of David Bohm and Bill Isaacs on dialogue. I felt that to engage in real dialogue you almost needed a contemplative heart. How I have come to understand dialogue is that it invites us to create a space among those with whom you are in dialogue where each comes with their piece of the truth and suspends judgment on the “truths” of the others. You take the time to understand, to explore the differences among you. You begin to appreciate each other and to trust the experiences that have brought you all to this place. Continuing to explore the question or the issue at hand you allow synergy to emerge and sometimes a new position is imagined that is not anyone’s particular truth but something that is both part of and transcends all the individual truths around the circle.
Not an easy endeavor nor a quick fix. What I do know is that the ways that we currently try to approach the crises of our time do not work. We’ve had hundreds of years trying them.
So What If? What If . . . .
- We were willing to take the time to come together with people who differ?
- We held our own positions gently yet with integrity?
- We listened to each other out of a contemplative heart?
- We were curious about where we differed with each other?
- We explored those differences seeking understanding?
- We created the space where synergy might be possible?
- We were willing to shift our hold on our individual truth so as to affirm the emerging truth of the whole?
I continue to struggle with the challenges this holds for the “activist” in me. How do we do social justice work in this spirit? But I believe there is something here that people of faith are in a unique position to explore and to offer as we move toward breakthrough. In the next reflections I’ll share some of the ways ICCD has been exploring Exercising Contemplative Power.