Most of my blog posts on the topic of community make a case for seeing it as a social organism, as something that emerges, grows, flourishes, and dies, just like other living things. I typically focus my reflections on how not to interfere with or undermine its organic process, suggesting that we see ourselves more as gardeners than engineers – optimizing the conditions for its spontaneous formation, rather than bending and bolting its frame together according to some prescribed assembly instructions.
I do come closer to an “engineering” model of community in proposing a method of dialogue that can help partners find common ground and work cooperatively for solutions that matter to (and include) everyone involved. The fact is, community doesn’t just happen – despite my reference above to its “spontaneous formation.” There are things we must do, both in preparation and all along the way, for the work of community to be truly successful.
So maybe that’s where we can pick up the thread again, in making an essential distinction between the “work of community” as (1) what can be accomplished by partners working together in community, and (2) the more organic-spiritual process by which community itself comes into being. In the four-part Dialogue series and this present post, I clarify the inner workings of community, focusing specifically on the disciplines to which partners must commit themselves in order for it to be effective.
My diagram identifies four critical disciplines that partners need to practice in their work together. “Ego” (Latin for “I”) represents you or me as we engage with this process, while “other” is another person – a committee or team member, spouse or life partner, or anyone with whom we are in relationship.
My assumption is that the work before us is purposeful, perhaps something we have been given to accomplish, rather than merely “getting along.” We might be members of a task force of some kind, with the understanding that our work group will be disbanded once our assignment is completed. Or maybe our community is perennial and organized less formally, meaning that we will continue to exist even after we have concluded our work on a project.
In any case, what do you (or I) need to be committed to, in a disciplined way, to ensure as much as possible that our work together will be successful? I’ll name them the Four Disciplines for making community work.
Discipline One: “Be Present” (the Practice of Grounding)
It should be obvious that if we are not fully present to each other and to the work before us, we are not likely to make meaningful progress. As with everything else in life, 80% of success is just showing up – where “just” is not to suggest that this discipline is trivial and easy. It definitely isn’t.
Both external and internal forces frequently conspire to take us away from the here-and-now, which is the only touchpoint we have with reality. Other life concerns, environmental distractions, normal daydreaming, low energy, mental fogginess, disinterest in the work itself, doubts about our own abilities, echos and after-images of an earlier incident, or second thoughts about others at the table – these are only a sampling of forces that might pull our attention away from “here” and out of “now.”
A proven practice for helping us be present (or come back again) is using our breath as a tether back to our body. Whereas our mind is busy traveling though time and space, our body is always right where we are. By turning attention to our breath – feeling the air pass through our nostrils, feeling our abdomen expand and relax, gathering our intention with the in-breath and releasing distractions with the out-breath – we can ground ourselves again in mindful awareness.
Discipline Two: “Stay Centered” (the Practice of Integrity)
Most relationship problems are complications of the fact that one or both partners are not properly centered in themselves. A “centered” personality is neurotically stable, emotionally balanced, self-managed, and capable of responding thoughtfully to others. When we are not centered – perhaps due to situational stress, physical exhaustion, or to the chronic consequences of early life trauma – it is difficult to connect meaningfully with others or be productive in our work.
This practice of integrity includes more than staying true to our moral values, however. As a principle of psychology and personality theory, it refers to the “virtue” of ego strength, of being in possession of a self-conscious center of awareness, intention, agency, and control. Practicing the discipline of staying centered can be as simple as reminding ourselves that no one is here to do the work for us, and that we “have what it takes” to meet the situation at hand or find the assistance and resources we need.
Discipline Three: “Make Room” (the Practice of Accommodation)
Perhaps the greatest challenge of community, as well as the greatest threat to its potential, is the inability (or unwillingness) of partners to make room for their differences – and this can range from differences in temperament, background, worldview, beliefs, moral values, race, class, gender, or age. Their inability (or unwillingness) to allow and “make room” for – literally to accommodate – what’s different in/about each other will inevitably sterilize the soil where community might otherwise take root.
In my experience, the most ineffective teams and failed communities had at least one partner who couldn’t (or was unwilling to) accept the differences that others brought to the table. They were convicted in their belief that absolute agreement on all the “important” factors was necessary for the work of community to proceed. As a consequence of their stated or unspoken exclusions, others did not feel accepted for who they were and what they brought to the table, and the promise of community was cut off.
Discipline Four: “Get Focused” (the Practice of Attunement)
When an orchestra assembles for a performance, one of the first things they do is calibrate their instruments to the same tone (worldwide this is the ‘A’ note: 440 hertz). This makes sure that every player is set on the same scale and their instruments will be in harmony. Obviously, the performance itself will not consist in the strings, horns, and woodwinds playing an ‘A’ note from start to finish. The purpose of their initial attunement is to ensure that when they do begin their performance, all the sounds are complementary and harmonious.
In the work of community it is essential for everyone at the table to focus themselves on the objective or purpose of their work. Not just at the beginning but all along the way, partners need to attune themselves to their reason for coming together. One of the services of a good leader is to invite members periodically to refresh their understanding of and commitment to the higher purpose in their work. Inspiring a shared vision, again and again, ensures that all partners are tuning their instruments to the same “tone” – to the same creative intention and ultimate goal.
The way to a healthy and productive community is no mystery, even though community itself is not something we can engineer or assemble. By practicing the Four Disciplines of Being Present, Staying Centered, Making Room, and Getting Focused, partners can nurture the conditions for its emergence. As they learn how to work together, their way of being together grows increasingly more unified and transformative – becoming a spiritual community.
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