Many people have dreamed of living in an intentional community, but have gone away discouraged when they found they were not getting what they wanted, including myself. However, I do believe that many more people can find what they are looking for in community if they had the right tools for group process. After much thought and study, I have come to the conclusion that a higher rate of success can be achieved if a group establishes at the beginning that the process itself is more important than the goal. If all can hold the goal very lightly, then it actually has a greater chance of happening. The tools that I have come to identify as being most useful to group process are: “allowing,” meditative consensus, and conflict resolution techniques. At some point in the future I could even see that “allowing” by itself, might be sufficient. I will go into more detail about these processes towards the end of this article, but for now my focus will be exploring the above tools with a group. These tools can be used in any cooperative venture, and my hope is that I will one-day work with a group to establish an intentional community using these or similar tools – remembering the process itself would be the main thing.
Looking at the larger picture, I see our culture as sitting on the cusp of a great evolutionary change. In the infancy of our evolution we lived in cooperative tribes and had a very feminine-mind orientation. A member of the tribe not only had their own individual identity but also a group identity. Then about 20,000 years ago in Chinese culture and about 5,000 to 6,000 years ago in Western culture we shifted to a more male-mind orientation, a lessening of cooperative group living, and a shift to smaller extended families. This in turn shifted to the nuclear family and then to the “sub-nuclear” or single parent family. However, I believe that we are now at the dawn of a third age in which we are going to shift to a more balanced use of the male and female minds (they are not equal, but have separate functions). I see this inner shift being paralleled by an outer shift to a new form of cooperative group living. We will not be related by blood but by intellectual and spiritual commonalities.
This grand evolutionary drama has been playing out in my own life through my vacillation for over 63 years between two dreams; the first being the American dream of homeownership, a sufficiency of material goods, and a feeling of abundance. The addition of loving spouse and children rounds out the picture. The second being that of living in a cooperative community. I have lived in one and been in at the start of three others. I have also belonged to a few food coops, garden coops and child care coops. Now with the rise in popularity of the Ecovillage concept I have felt myself once more drawn to the latter dream. However, I recall the difficulties and the successes that arose in the cooperative processes. Overall, I feel that each endeavor was successful to some extent and I was able to learn much about myself, which counts as a big success for me. Nonetheless, I feel that my co-communitarians and myself must face the difficulties squarely if we are to be successful.
Successful communities have been established by a group forming around a powerful central person whose vision was close enough to the others for them to compromise and adjust to it. However, I feel that an even more solid community can be established through more egalitarian methods.
So, I see my preparation for group living as being two fold. Firstly, I am considering my personal evolution within cultural and human evolutions. I will continue to deepen my relationship with myself and to heal the wounds engendered by living in a male-mind paradigm, which I have allowed. But we all have “stuff.” Most intentional communities I have explored admit that nothing brings up one’s “stuff” faster than attempting to live in community and I would agree. So I see a continuing process of being willing to explore the best and worst of myself individually and within the context of a group.
Secondly, I am studying how group interpersonal relations can work better and what I would feel most comfortable with personally. I am realizing that I want to be more process oriented and less goal oriented. As I stated earlier, it is my belief that to put the process first is to better guarantee both the achieving of the goal and the quality of that goal.
I hope to be a part of a group that is in agreement about the basic principles of allowing, meditative consensus and conflict resolution or to at least open to explore these and whatever other group process tools anyone has. I believe that having a small cooperative venture within which to practice growing those skills would be very helpful. In my mind taking on the project of establishing an egalitarian ecovillage is too big. Even the smallest cooperative projects bring up conflicts. In a smaller project there is ample opportunity for working on whatever the group has decided are the bottom line principles. For example, one such project might be having a community meal once a week. In such a venture various questions and differences might arise. Where and when do we do it? Are we vegetarian, or do we include meat? What money is needed and should everyone contribute the same amount or only according to their ability? Do we sell meals to the public? Do we sell extra food to members or just give it away? How do we raise money for food or to cover potential damage we might do to the facility? How do we deal with people who break work commitments? How do we deal with conflict? How do we deal with simple personality clashes? The list could go on…
Granted in reading the above, some people might feel that considering so deeply what might go wrong will bring it about. True to an extent, but the process would be focusing on the positive skills that improve human relations. Additionally, in every group endeavor (in Western culture at least) interpersonal conflict does arise. I allow that I want to be prepared for it. Putting our heads in the sand will not make it go away. So if a group agrees to something like allowing, meditative consensus and conflict resolution, what they are doing is allowing for the worst while allowing for the best. In my experience, groups that do not do some kind of planning for conflict resolution or communication opportunity have a short life.
So, as I have mentioned above, after giving it long thought, allowing, meditative consensus and conflict resolution tool(s) are needed to provide a cooperative venture its best chance for growth. My ideas will likely evolve, but this seems like a good starting place. I hope to meet others who have come to the same or similar conclusions or who are at least willing to try these. I am simply extending an invitation to like-minded individuals. Once a group is formed the growing or refining can begin. I see it as an ongoing process dependent on many variables. But my goal is to establish harmonious, respectful interpersonal relations within the group.
The following are expansions of the process. I will begin with allowing. What is this allowing? It is simply letting everything be as it is. There are subtleties to it that need work in order for people to come to understand the permutations of what allowing can mean. However, to define allowing is to lose or muddy what it really means. The simple shared connotations of the word are enough at the beginning to get a grasp of it. Following is an example.
Imagine that you are in a group of people and you have all agreed that the process is the main thing and not whatever endeavor you are using as a vehicle for that process. Nonetheless, someone is going to get fed up with the process and say ”Let’s cut to the chase here. I want some action and some decisions now! I am fed up with all this talk. So who wants to get down to brass tacks and DO something?” Some other people may feel the same way, but you don’t. You feel like there is more that needs to be said and done before the accomplished end is reached. Given the group has agreed at the beginning to do allowing, you could say, “Allowed, that you can do whatever you want, I am also allowed to feel and do whatever I want about that. I am feeling steamrollered. Is that okay with you?” He might say, “Well, maybe I just need a break from all this talking for awhile. Can we adjourn?” And then maybe everyone suddenly realizes that they too need a break and everyone agrees that a break is allowed. The process is often much longer than that at first, with going back and forth and allowing everything, people usually reach a place where they all feel they are on the same page. It is quite often a matter of looking for the lowest common denominator behind what everyone is wanting. Allowing makes it clear that all ideas and feelings are allowed. Anyone can put out anything they want, allowed that someone else might come back with something else. The more the process is done, the more easily it flows. There can be a truly wonderful feeling at the end.
Meditative Consensus: What is normally meant by consensus is that nearly all members of the group agree upon a proposal. However, in my mind, in a small group of 20 people or less, full unanimity is possible and desirable. Consensus is a process where there is first discussion; an example would be the discussion of what kind of a cooperative venture a group wants to use as its vehicle for practicing cooperative skills. Then, at some point in the discussion, when it seems like there might be full consensus on what that might be, someone makes a proposal. It can be anyone in the group. Then a vote is taken and if even one person says I don’t’ like it, then it is open to discussion again. The person says why they don’t like it and rather than trying to convince that person of the efficacy of that particular choice, the others instead begin to see if there is a lower common denominator that would include that person and not leave anyone else out. For example let’s say it appears that there is a consensus that a community meal endeavor once a week would be a good idea. However, Bill says, I don’t like it. Then the discussion would open again and Bill would be asked what he doesn’t like about it. ”I don’t like cooking.” “Allowed. So how about you don’t cook. Anybody else not like cooking or washing dishes? Or is anyone not willing to do those things?” Somebody else says, “How about if we divided up the jobs and see if there are enough people to cover all the jobs.” If that looks like it will work a vote is taken again and maybe this time everyone is in agreement. If not and if an impasse feels like it has been reached the group can take it into meditation. Oftentimes, inspiration comes out of that and unanimous consent is achieved. Everyone is able to feel like they chose the final plan and they feel committed to it. Staying with the process is important and can include breaks from a few minutes to however long people decide to table it. Maybe it would be indefinitely or until someone says, “I really want to start that process going again. Anyone else still interested?” Maybe the group that remains decides unanimously to reach out to new members at that point saying. “We are working on creating a community meal cooperative, as a practice for developing community skills. Here’s what we have decided thus far. Want to join?”
Everything is allowed. The process goes on until a consensus is reached and then action points are discussed and again consensus is used to agree upon those. A playful, flexible attitude is helpful but not necessary. Some groups assign roles such as facilitator, note taker and “empath”. The latter person is charged with monitoring the “emotional climate” of the meeting. Sheila Kerrigan states, in her paper How To Use a Consensus Process To Make Decisions, that the role of the empath is to “watch for non verbal clues, taking note of the body language and other nonverbal cues of the participants. Defusing potential emotional conflicts, maintaining a climate free of intimidation and being aware of potentially destructive power dynamics, such as sexism or racism within the decision-making body....”
Conflict Resolution Processes: Although good allowing and consensus can do much to head off conflicts I feel that having a structured conflict resolution tool in place from the very beginning can be extremely helpful. But it needs to be something that is introduced as a proposal, is up for discussion, is voted on and, only adopted if there is unanimous agreement. Also, even if it is agreed to by all, when a conflict does arise, if all parties do not again agree that is the tool they want to use then it goes back to the table for more discussion—” Allowed, you don’t want to use this process right now, would any other tool work for you?”
One such process that could be used is the “Talking and Listening Technique” as set forth by Shakti Gawaine in her book Return to the Garden. It can be done with a mediator or not. In it, first, one party lays out his complaint in short “sound bytes”, using “I-messages” (no blaming) and the other party repeats back to them what they have heard, adding nothing of their own. The first party can correct them if necessary. The first person goes through all of his points and when he is done it is the second person’s turn. He does the same. It can go back and forth for as long as they both desire. Usually at the end there is a delightful feeling of having been heard and very often also a feeling of resolution.
These are some of my ideas on preparing for living in community or for working on any other large group cooperative venture. I like the idea of starting with a small project and having learning to do the process be the number one goal, with the vehicle for that being the secondary goal. Once people have learned the skills in a low commitment project they take on larger ones more comfortably, perhaps even an ecovillage. The people who have learned these skills might be seen as invaluable consultants to other new cooperative ventures. Teaching the cooperative skills they have developed could even be the community business. I have a vision of these types of extremely democratic ecovillages popping up everywhere. The allowing/consensus process, or whatever evolves, may be noticed by the larger society and I believe could eventually affect the broad governance of our country.