Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Silencio y nonviolencio

For the past few days, but only really for two nights, we at Whitefeather Peace House have been gifted with a family of gracious guests. Pancho was our connection; he is involved in the Metta Center for Nonviolence, and we have a couple of strong connections there, including Stephanie Van Hook and Michael Nagler.

In between staying at Whitefeather last Thursday night and leaving last evening for points south, this lovely family visited Bainbridge Island to visit the offices of Yes! magazine and to talk to David Korten. So we were the pitstop before and after.

The father, Victor, is an economist and taught at the university in Mexico City on and off for some 25 years. He studied in St. Paul in the mid-1970s and then in Switzerland to earn his Ph.D. He is gregarious and multilingual. Conchita is his wife; she and Pancho prepared a most delicious and beautiful meal last evening, as traditionally Mexican as they could from what was on hand. Ivan is the 12-year-old, quiet and curious, connecting with big brotherliness to Alexa, the five-year-old Center of Energy hereabouts.

Pancho is the Mexican Gandhi, even practicing a day of silence each week, on Mondays. I told him my favorite story about Gandhi's practice, told by a woman who lived and worked on one of his ashrams (paraphrase):

A few of us women were working in the ashram office on a Monday morning, laughing and chatting as we worked. Gandhi came in, silent as on all Mondays, and sat off to the side, doing his office work. We started to gossip about some bureaucrat who had come to 'inspect' the ashram, a most pompous man. One of us said, "And he was the ugliest man in the world." Suddenly we all saw Gandhi scowling. "What?" we asked, but it was his silent day. He continued to scowl as we looked at each other in consternation. Suddenly, one of us said, "The second to the ugliest man in the world!" and he beamed at us.
Pancho laughed a long time at that one, for the beauty of it at so many levels, for the egolessness that the aspirant can learn, for the commonplace and thus accessible office gossip of the ashram, for the endless plague of bureaucrats from society to society, and for the communication of silence. Indeed, while many spiritual traditions practice versions of vows of silence, it turns out to be one of the connections to our theories of conflict resolution and is crucial to the strategic success of nonviolence. How can the necessary coalitions be built without listening more than we talk?How can the stories of those with grievances be truly heard and deeply felt without trading periods of intent silence?

How can a leader learn to be a vector of messaging, a conduit of concern, and thus a node bridging subnetworks into larger and larger networks without simple silence, but the silence of rapt attention to the problems, ideas, inspirations and process of all the parties?

Silence is how we attain the spinfree mental state necessary to those Archmedian Eureka! moments, the condition necessary to reach the empty mind, dialtone brain that allows the elements of complex problems to resort, reframe, and reassert themselves in a new configuration in our thinking. Silence gives the great composers the blank score they fill with the notes that move magically through the generations.

So, silence is the inner work of the creative and the connecting intake of the leader; Gandhi connected the two. His inner jihad, his silent struggle to overcome his turmoil and express an organized response, informed his work in the world, the jihad of nonviolent liberation of a huge pluralistic people from the largest and most widespread empire the world had seen.

Sigurd Olson, one of my Minnesota childhood heroes, founded the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. He called his wilderness cabin Listening Point.
My father gave me both trips to the wilderness and the Sig Olson books, one of which was in fact titled Listening Point. Sig went to pay attention to the wild and he preserved a great section of it.

Nowadays, social psychologists and activists have been conducting listening projects, seeking the stories of constituencies. These have been a major piece of some of the best community organizing. The gang member has a story and if he can tell it perhaps he won't have to make his mark with his gun. Same with a cop. And when they hear each other's pain and hopes, the violence isn't quite so likely, not as necessary. In the end, violence and nonviolence are communication. Words to fists to guns to bombs--we do what it takes to get our presence, if not our accurate message, across. Meeting it all with silence, with listening, is how we de-escalate and move back to our human gift of speech, which is meaningless without the corresponding silence of the listener. Indeed, when I train those who are going to take the field to Vibeswatch large social events that are also contentious, I let folks know that the fastest way to convert the energy of the angry one to manageable levels is to ask a question and then honestly listen. If the angry one is heard, there is no need to escalate to the fist or beyond. Just notify the belligerent that you want to know what is wrong and then prove it by listening and acknowledging.

Of course, there is also the story of the Trappists who took a vow of silence. After three years, one said at the long wooden dinner table, "Please try not to leave the bathroom water basin dirty, thanks so much." After another two years of silence one other monk said, "I think I've been scrubbing the basin very clean, my friend." After another four years of silence a third monk observed one evening, "Can we please stop this constant bickering?"

Comments? I'm listening.

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