Tuesday 10 March 2009

Now we have a date for our next weekend of exploration: April 4 and 5 in Sheffield. Leave a post, with your e-mail address if you are interested in coming along.

Tuesday 13 January 2009

Introduction to our methods

Today I am posting the first of the introductions to some of the core methods of our emerging practice. Feel free to extend upon these, or comment, or ask questions. It can all be done on this site.

The Clown, and its relation to our present work.

The Clown is an essential aspect of the core personality of every one of us. He and she is our unspoilt and unsophisticated selves, equipped with the complete range of human emotional response and yet oddly incapable of grasping the everyday rituals and the subtle dishonesties that accompany these, which our adult social life requires of us.

In some ways the Clown reminds us of our own child selves - but there is a stoicism and an unhinged quality of independence about the Clown persona which is different from the child quality. The child, we should remember, is always ready to adapt to prevailing adult demands, whereas the clown merely pretends, or else tries and inevitably fails, to make these adaptations.

The Clown aspect, is most essentially living in the moment - which means also living with the immediate emotional tides of the moment. The logic of the clown's life is always about to fly off at a tangent - abandoning those acculturated commitments to everyday normality - and regularly offending against the received definitions of what we suppose to be the real business of life. The clown is incapable of conducting this "real business" because he or she is always subverted by the inordinate flux of his or her emotions, and constantly the victim of the de-railing influence of happenstance and accident.

We as observers cannot predict how the clown will respond: as a seagull flaps past the window one clown may respond with beatific delight, as if this were the most glorious moment in her entire life; another clown, perhaps, might become horribly and strangely depressed. We are unable make sense of the clown's emotional response; the clown herself is not concerned about whether it makes sense or not.

It is not just inexplicable surges of emotions, or random everyday events, that hijack the clown's attention and focus. Even in moments of calm, the clown will be seized by unprovoked flights of imagination. So it is that - in a variety of ways - the clown's world resembles our dream life far more closely than the life we enact during waking hours.

The Clown persona is worth cultivating simply for its entertainment or therapeutic value. It offers us a sorely needed respite from those exhausting definitions of ourselves which we conscientiously maintain: for the supposed benefit of our work colleagues, for our clients or other social contacts, for our loved ones, and for our own oppressively conformist super-ego. The Clown is available for a more radical employment however, and this is what I want to borrow him/her for. He/she is going to help us enhance the negative capability which is the core of our method: the "configuration of grace in the now".

The clown's way of cultivating negative capability begins with suspending our practical commitments; we have to release ourselves (temporarily at least) from the domain of practical consequence so as to claim for ourselves that same freedom of expression, that fluidity of experience and action that is the stuff of our dream life. This is to find a way of being in the moment freed from all practical and moral responsibilities - for as long as we remain within this protected, imaginary improvisational space. Here we may inhabit our artistic persona, our clown persona, without reservation, and with no need for censorship.

In our research setting we shall practise this same negative capability in a variety of different ways (which I plan to introduce in other sections of this blog). Our practice will include the warm-ups, inductions, and improvisational set-ups which some of us have learned from the "Nose to Nose" school of clowning under Vivian Gladwell. This is a set of skills we can practice and support in our own small group settings. In this, we shall learn to take equal responsibility for our own improvisational presence of mind and performance, at the same time as we are committed to facilitating and helping to nurture a similar quality of presence in our companions.

More information about Nose to Nose Clowning

Process Work as an ingredient of our method

"Process Work" is a method of working psychologically, with individuals and small and large-scale groups, developed by Arnold Mindell out of a background in Jungian psychology and quantum physics. It is an effective integration of these influences, as well as drawing upon shamanic and Taoist traditions. Out of this broad practice, I wanted to take a selection of elements friendly to our own emerging method.

The process work ethos would encourage us to nurture a sensitive attunement to the subtleties of the present moment and to our co-presence within the now. We will be helped in this, by drawing upon other, related disciplines: the Feldenkrais Method, Eugene Gendlin's method of "Focusing", and the Nose-to-Nose style of clown impro. All of these enable a fine-tuning of our subtle awareness, helping us to bring the shifting energies and contours of the interactive field into sharper focus. This becomes a much simpler task when we have the support and co-presence of others who are doing it with us. In other words it is greatly enhanced by the mutual encouragement and inter-personal facilitation we shall bring into play.

Here are some of the aspects I want to pay attention to:

  • The "dream quality" of our feeling and our awareness - of both self and other.
  • The underlying pattern of roles, of invitations and inhibitions, that guides the flow of our interaction.
  • The recognition of "no go areas" (also known as "hot spots") which are regions - or topics - that seem to carry a high emotional charge and that in normal social situations we are mostly enjoined to avoid. Given a level of emotional "holding" by the whole assembled group, it is possible to find ways of inhabiting these "hot spots" and allowing the emotional high tension to find real pathways for expression and reconciliation.
  • A similar recognition of "edges" - which are the barely recognised borderlines of our emotional or cognitive comfort zones. We tend to behave as if straying "over the edge" were absolutely unthinkable. But with support we can come to realize there is always a choice and that exploration "over the edge" can bring real enhancement of personal power and flexibility; the expected catastrophes from this straying beyond the zones of habit and comfort, are either an illusion, or have a very different meaning than our habitual fears would have us believe. (For example, the risk of "losing face" may be unconsciously confused with the fear of death.)
  • It is an important aspect of our own way of working, that we will fully value and respect the aspect of ourselves that wants to stay on this side of the "edge". We will support and help to clarify this aspect, so that it fully participates in any re-appraisal of what this "edge" is really about, and how we will conduct ourselves in relation to it. (This is an application of the "Focusing" method, mentioned above.)
  • A willingness to "role play" in order to bring out the underlying tensions or polarities in the interactive field.
  • A willingness to surrender to the ongoing drama; this needs to be coupled with the building of the maximum possible trust between the "actors", the "audience" and those in the group who are acting as our facilitators.
  • The recognition of unexpressed or "ghost" roles who may have a decisive influence in structuring the field we inhabit. (Sometimes we are massively freed up, as soon as someone is willing to play the part of "the tyrant", "the monster", "the other woman" or "the person we are all leaving out".)
  • A recognition of the essential role of facilitator: he or she who helps to maintain some of the aforementioned emotional "holding"; who will also try to attune and amplify the processes flickering in the background. these are processes and patterns that may be needing attention and encouragement to flow more freely. The facilitator will also help us keep our bearings and remain to some degree anchored in the consensual reality. (Some of us are fearful we may be engulged by our fantasies, or by the fantasies of others, or simply by the unleashing of the flow of our own emotions. It helps if we will trust that the facilitator has the capacity to "bring us back" to a shared reality in which we will be able to find ourselves - and the other people - again.)

Several of us in the research community for "Grace in the Now" have experience in Process Work, though none of us is involved in continuing training, and none of us has a formal qualification. My personal view is that we are offering here an alternative context for the process-work sensibility, and we are looking to provide a new integration for it, within our contrasting set of working methods. This is a form of piracy, it must be admitted, but we are not stealing anything that has formal copyright attached to it. (Very much the same situation applies to the discipline "Discovering the Clown Within" which is covered in a separate section.)

More information about Process Work in the UK

Friday 12 December 2008

Science, Systems and Subtle Interaction

I set up this blog first and foremost as a point of contact for those people who may be interested in joining a research project in which we work face to face, addressing the dynamics of grace and estrangement - in an immediate and personal manner.

Within my own field of vision, however, this is intricately bound up with my longstanding commitment to develop a much broader practical and theoretical perspective. This entails the best marriage I have yet encountered, between a truly scientific sensibility and the person-friendly perspective which helps us take charge, collectively, of our own pattern of life. Another heroic attempt at such a marriage was made by Robert Pirsig, in his Zen and the Art of MotorCycle Maintenance, and Lila, but for various reasons (see my other blog at http://lila-q.blogspot.com) I feel my own attempt is truer to the spirit of science and also to the spirit of human reality(1)

I would like to put this material within reach of any friendly bloggers, so I am including some key links here. The practical perspective that I offer, is strongly consequential upon the radical move I have made, of bringing systems theory and lived reality into intimate relationship.

To understand how this works, however, we need to make a broad distinction between systems theory, and systems sensibility. Systems theory is a broad technical discipline in its own right, which seems to proceed perfectly happily in the Asperger's-Syndrome "boy world" of machines, calculations, decision and control - seemingly walled off from the hot, sweaty, emotional domain of everyday living. Systems sensibility, by contrast, is implicitly a personal thing: depending on intuition, felt sense, and vague recognitions of something important that cannot - certainly can not at will - be put into words. I associate this sensibility primarily with the work of Professor Stafford Beer; so far as I know the term was coined by him, but the words (if not the true concept) have spread far and wide since Beer’s work had its first flowering

Stafford Beer represents the high point of the emotionally intelligent systems thinking, which was on the rise in the decades from the Second World War to the early 1970s. (There has been something of an eclipse of his work and influence more recently, but I suspect that the cause of this is largely to do the vagaries of cultural fashion.) The focus of his method is the intelligent cybernetic modeling of any form(2) of human enterprise. From this complex and demanding method(3) I am selecting some key principles, which will help to ground - and to provide orientation for - the delicate structure which we are going to build together.

You can find a discussion of the array of existing methods, which I see as having an essential resonance with my own work, on the following link.

A remarkable feature of our own method, is that it centres so faithfully about our personal standpoint: our personal commitments, our feelings, desires, and preferred ways of getting along together. In this sense it is more down-to-earth and personal than the practical methods I refer to on my main web-site, but so far as its domain of application is concerned, it is more general, and in effect more abstract.

To understand this paradox, we need to know the technical background and reasoning, some of which can be found at this link, but for which the underpinnings are scattered through various locations on my web-site, especially the section on systems sensibility. This technical understanding is not essential for the actual practice, but it is indispensable for understanding how and why the method works; it will also be an aid for making sense of the delicate choices we have to make in the course of our practice.

NOTE 1. The attempt to bridge the gap between scientific and everyday reality was also a primary concern of the twentieth century philosophers A.N.Whitehead, John Dewey and Justus Buchler. In other words, Robert Pirsig was by no means the first person to address this issue.

2. In Diagnosing the System for Organisations (1985) Beer declares that the approach is relevant: "whether you are interested in a firm, an international conglomerate, a social service, a consortium of like-minded people, a government department, or a national economy." One of Beer's distinctions was to be invited as a consultant to the entire economy of Chile, under the only Marxist government to be democratically elected in the history of the world. Between the years 1971 and 1973 he devoted his main professional energy to this project. Following the CIA-inspired military coup and subsequent imposition of a military state under General Pinochet, Beer was invited to return and provide his services for the new regime - which request I am given to understand he politely declined.

3. A proper understanding of Beer's approach requires an apprenticeship to the cybernetics and underlying mathematics. This would also need to be combined with practice in the detailed modelling of some real-world enterprises. The interested reader is referred to Beer's own corpus of writing, which gives by far the best accounts available, of this work.

Monday 8 December 2008

The Bones of It

I still need to put a lot of detail out, about these various "layers of method" and how each one works in its original context.

But there's also the question of what is at the core of this - what is the central insight, or something like that? The trouble is, over the months I have kept coming at this from different angles, but each time finding myself writing a different account altogether.

By calling the blog "Configuring Grace in the Now" I think I am nailing down a useful pivot point for starting to think about this. I'm hinting at the need to find a more graceful way of being. ("Graceful" in this context includes the ability to fall flat on one's face, if one falls at the right moment. It counts as "graceful" if it contributes to the forward movement of the entire situation, which of course depends as much on how people respond, as on the manner of my actual falling.)

This state (or this movement) of grace has to have several dimensions to it, according to my best understanding. It is simultaneously a way to be in the material world (which means perhaps doing real things, or at least expressing real things "out in the open"), but also to be with each other in such a way that our individual doing also feeds the collective creation in the moment. And thirdly, and at the same time, to have a compassionate and graceful being-with-myself. I see this as 3 simultaneous aspects of the one world I seek to inhabit with others.

So if a clear-cut way of working emerges from this research situation, it will be unique in its commitment to address simultaneously our being in the world, our being with each other, and our being with ourselves. That might seem like an impossible degree of multi-tasking, but I think if we have a shared commitment in that broad direction, and the willingness to proceed somewhat by trial and error, we become active real-time resources for each other, so that we spontaneously find ourselves helping each other towards the desired state of being / interacting.

I am trusting that those various background methods (the process work, the clowning, the willingness to improvise and take risks together etc etc) all help to push in this same direction - and I think they really can do this. Please come and help me find out if this is true.

Welcome to this blog

I don't know if this is the right title for what we are doing, but anyway I decided to reserve this blog space for communication amongst the group of people who are possibly available for our next weekend of research / exploration over the edge.

I am currently looking for a venue in Sheffield where whoever is available, can meet for a weekend in January or February next year. Let me know if you are interested in coming, and want to help us choose the date.

At our gatherings in October 07 and April 08 we have been creating a tuned-in way of working together which transcends the agendas we arrive with and moves into a shared creative improvisational space - from where we hope to discover all sorts of possibilities and opportunities.

As I said before, it is work that combines elements from Process Work, Community Building, Clown Improvisation, Feldenkrais Method and Focusing. We have only done it twice in the space of a year, but I have a strong sense of it shaping into a unified and coherent method - that will repay many times over the time and energy that we commit to it.

I think this blog can work better than a string of addresses in an e-mail, but in order to make posts you have to sign up for it, and it will be good if we can all find a way to receive an e-mail alert whenever anybody posts to it. I will continue to provide information through the old-style e-mail list until the blog is up and running, and seems to be working for everyone.