Emergent Community

As i’ve mentioned before, i am in the rather challenging, often painful, process of leaving a year-long program that i had thought might provide the supportive communal backing for my work i am longing for. In one of the discussions, someone pointed out that one of the issues might be different definitions of community! Yes, of course! I had a vague sense of that disconnect and felt the relief of someone pointing it out clearly. So, here is what i long for in a community – in the form of a metaphor: Greek folk dancing.

Most Greek folk dances are village dances that the whole village dances together. There is a leader (or several), traditionally men, after whom a line forms. All people hold hands, which helps ensure connection. Each person is responsible for at minimum going in the same direction as the line – adding the same steps is bonus, imo. More experienced dancers – those who know the steps – are also aware of what is going on with the line. They ensure the line remains a circle, no one’s arms get stretched too much, etc. When a line gels, it’s an amazing experience: It feels like everyone is an individual and there is something larger than that. That’s called emergence in science: The parts form a whole that is more than just the sum of the parts.

This plays out in various ways while dancing. For example, last night, during one of the dances, i could sense something was off when i was trying to follow the leader’s steps – and looked up the line to find that there was someone else leading! The line had split and the new leader was doing different steps. The people closest to him were following him, creating the sense of confusion i had picked up… I quickly let people next to me know we had a new leader – and with relief they switched to the new steps, too. Things gelled again.

It is this interplay between individual and community that i am longing for. That we each are responsible for our own steps (requests) and that we each hold each other, help each other with the steps (follow up on requests with questions rather than ignore them, reach out to people to ask if they want empathy rather than waiting for them to ask for it). Basically, we are responsible for ourselves and for the group, which thus becomes a community.

Another metaphor that captures what i am longing for comes from another art form: Singing in a choir. Daniel Siegel uses that in one of his videos… He uses it as an example of the experience of integration in this video starting at about 37:00 in chapter 11. A fully integrated choir consists of singers who know what they are singing and are attuned to the rest of the choir, adjusting the pitch, tempo, etc as necessary. Again, this is emergence – something larger than the collection of the parts is created by the interdependent attunement.

My guess is that most of us have trouble understanding this idea of a community because almost none of us have experienced it. What gets in the way of our understanding is cultural trauma from the messages that suggest that we should be independent and only complete self-reliance will lead to happiness. As Tara Brach Brené Brown put it in one of her talks: Our self-worth is mirrored by the community we feel belonging in. We belong only where we are embraced for who we are. And we bring ourselves to the places where we feel we belong.

Community is a reflection of our interdependence. It is not a collection of individuals. It is an emergent property, a web of individuals who hold each other (and, yes, sometimes fail to, and then make that a communal issue).

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Emergent Community — 4 Comments

  1. I hear you Rachel … having the interplay nurtures any relationship and you are right that I have a different view of community than you but what we share are the same human needs — to be loved, valued/appreciated. For much of my life (from childhood we are so trained in this) I felt loved & valued when others did or said things I equated with love. Naturally, when they didn’t do or say what I thought was love my abandonment story would kick in and I felt horrible, rejected, unloved. I realized that this yo-yo’ing was unhealthy (much like yo-yo dieting) so I needed to dig deeper within myself and fill myself up by giving myself the love & compassion I sought from others. And so began my self-loving practice. Being loving and compassionate to myself is a moment to moment process of self-discovery that is nurtured by a variety of practices. It started with gratitude (I was inspired by Melody Beattie’s work in this area). I found that to be the most powerful process since it has me focus my attention on what I have, not what I feel is missing. My practice is continually evolving and includes spending time in silence, sharing myself, being vulnerable, accepting when I don’t feel open, being responsible for my reactions to whatever life presents, staying awake.

    My community is a group of individuals … each one as different as day and night. In my relatings with them I noticed something that I describe this way … where I enter with each one of the people in my life is distinct & unique and I love that ’cause I’m many people. Some reach out more, some less; I reach out to some I might to more of the reaching, others do more of the reaching … it’s a mixed bag as you say, not all one thing or another. What I know is we love each other and we are all doing our best … such is the nature of my community!

    Thanks again for starting this conversation and happy peeling back the layers in your self-discovery.

    • I am so enjoying this exchange, Donna Marie, because you’re bringing in another aspect yet again: Self-connection and self-love. I so agree with you that this is the foundation! And i don’t think i would have been able to let go of something that was much less than what i am yearning for if i had not had rebuild my inner strength through loving-kindness practice (in my case, i am enjoying Tara Brach’s flavor).

      Another thing i keep bumping into: The way our society is currently structured with the focus on 9-to-5 work, single houses, well, and money, the community i am dreaming of might not even be possible without radical changes in all aspects of our lives. And that’s a rather scary endeavor, so many of us might not be ready for it. Ironically, the deep community i envision would be a great support in making that change happen.

      Lots of gratitude to you, Donna Marie, for this stimulating exchange, especially because you helped add a couple of crucial pieces: The structures for a community (aka rules of the dance) and the practices for inner well-being.

  2. Hi Rachel,

    Thanks for presenting your experiences which always evoke the deepest thought and allows me to look at my own relationship to life and living. As I consider your examples of community interdependence, it occurs to me that there are rules of dance that are at work which all involved agree to play by. The fact is that human beings are reacting in so many diverse ways that it is difficult to have all our relatings (even the most intimate ones) react in harmony in every situation all the time. I have learned that it is up to me to be what I need or say what I need rather than expect the people in my life to know what I need in any given moment. It’s tricky though ’cause saying what I need is not a guarantee that the person is always going to do/say/act in the way I need to feel loved or valued … so my commitment is to feed myself with love so I am full with self-love and self-value. Of course, this does not prevent the feelings of loss of self-love that arise as a reaction to someone’s behavior however, I now know that my reaction is my own and I now take responsibility for that … it’s not the other person making me react in that way, rather it’s my past (and the beliefs I have attached) that is at play. Of course, it’s an ongoing process of dismantling the conditioned thoughts (Landmark Education uses the term, uncollapsing, which speaks to separating the actions of others from the meaning I make up as a result of others’ actions.

    • Thank you for pointing out that there are rules in dance and also for choirs! I am excited because that is adding to my metaphor! Intentional communities survive only if they take the time to put structures in place that ground the community in mutual agreements on things like vision, missing, membership plans, and conflict resolution strategies. Without those structures, the community cannot survive. (This is based on Diana Leafe-Christian’s work).

      I am guessing that you have a different vision for “community,” more along the lines of what i would call a collection of individuals. Your response makes clear to me that the metaphor wasn’t as helpful to get my vision across as i had hoped.

      I agree that it’s our responsibility to communicate what we need. We cannot expect others to read minds! However, what i am longing for is moving away from the idea that it is all my responsibility. If we want to live in community in the way i envision it, we need to take responsibility for each other, too. That could be as simple as checking in with each other by asking “how are you?” with the genuine intention of hearing the answer rather than going through the motion. It’s the interplay of this that is important. It’s not an either/or; it’s a both-and.

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