THE FEAR OF BEING SOPPY
We started with a song. “One by one all of us come to remember, we’re healing the world one heart at a time” was the refrain, over and over. I was excited by the awkwardness. Here I was, holding hands and singing in a circle, surrounded by dedicated environmental and social activists, only two-weeks after first ever hearing the phrase ‘intentional community’. The song was a neat cliche of what I had come to expect from my commune investigation; an attempt at immediate inclusion which directly cuts out any member who is not comfortable with such practice. I had travelled to an eco-village in central Germany to learn how to facilitate Process Work and Deep Democracy, two things I knew nothing about. Within 24 hours of my arrival I was crying in front of seventeen strangers and softly sobbing the words, ‘Everyone needs a home … Everyone’s just looking for a home’.
The eco-village was called Sieben Linden and the aim of the course was to teach the facilitation of Process Work. Process Work is psychologist Arnold Mindell’s practice of conflict resolution where individuals investigate their own fears, insecurities and ‘edges’, and then do group exercises in order to reveal these ‘edges’ and work together to bring about clearer communication and more interpersonal understanding. This form of conflict resolution is practiced in fields as diverse as corporate management consultancy and post-war reconciliation between African tribes. The only way to learn how to facilitate this process of conflict resolution is to take part in it yourself.
The first thing that struck me about my fellow course-mates was that they were mostly women, mostly over 40, mostly German, and that most of them were permanent residents of Sieben Linden. I currently live with three men in their twenties – two British, one Danish – none of which have ever lived in an eco-village. I was intentionally stepping out of my comfort zone to see what fruit might bear.
It soon became apparent that three of the seventeen participants were founding members of the community. They had worked and lived together for almost twenty years, first planning where to build their eco-village, then building and running it. A handful of the other Sieben Linden-based participants on the course were also ‘senior’ members of the community, figures who had central roles in the management and decision-making process of the village. What began to happen during the course was exactly what was meant to happen – all the skeletons came dancing out of the closet and unleashed the bundles of spite and distrust they’d been cradling for decades. Small bones of contention (e.g. whether a bike-lane should be constructed to protect child cyclists) burst out into direct confrontation. One would accuse the other of deceitfully directing community money into her own personal projects, and the accused would tell of the pain she suffered because everyone thought she was cold and selfish.
The course-leader actively encouraged these conflicts to play out. The idea is that behind any outburst, sore point or seemingly irrational niggle is a deeper insecurity about one’s identity, journey and place in the world. The leaders of Sieben Linden who were present were all intelligent, committed and open people who revealed themselves throughout the course just as the rest of the participants did. The difference was that these figures held such power and authority in the community that when they clashed the atmosphere in the room distilled into rich tension. Those who didn’t live there were given an intimate opportunity to gaze into the social workings of an established and prosperous eco-village, to see – and to be encouraged to participate in – the inevitable conflicts of fierce idealists living in such proximity to one another.
The recurring theme of the conflict was power. Sieben Linden in a self-governing village which is run by a handful of committees, each consisting of between five and seven members. There’s a committee for building, a committee for settlement planning, a committee for food and a selection of others. What became apparent was that some of the less vocal, more introverted, or less established members of the community felt excluded from these committees. They recalled the stress and trepidation they had felt when they’d acted to join a committee, and the disappointment that had followed the (seeming) rejection. The more powerful participants denied that the committees were exclusive, and denied that different members of Sieben Linden had any more power than others.
Process Work tackles the problem of invisible power structures. It recognises that status and rank exist in every form of social interaction and that no matter what you name something, or the structure you give it, some individuals will always wield more power and influence than others. The point of the course was to understand and investigate this, to challenge the participants to dig deep into themselves, reveal their fears, and have faith that the other human beings in the room would respect and understand them. In fact, the course focussed more on the individual than the group. Most time was spent on personal exercises that led each person into his or her true prejudices, and the aim of the group work was not to examine the prejudices of others, but to realise that the thing that so disturbs you about another person may be a form of envy, or a form of self-hatred in that the other person reflects a negative quality you feel you also possess.
It turns out that I have a deep and painful fear of exclusion. One group exercise involved choosing a contentious topic, taking sides on the debate, then letting your emotions guide your arguments. We chose the topic of whether to accept right-wing extremists into the global eco-village movement. I began logically: if you want the eco-village movement to stand against discrimination and for inclusion, then you have to include everyone, even those with racial prejudices. Naturally, other disagreed: how can you live and work alongside those who have such hatred of anyone who doesn’t share their own skin colour? Then it turned more personal. One woman explained her grandfather’s connection to Nazism, the subsequent shame of her father, and his economic demise under another totalitarian state, Soviet-controlled East Germany. She began weeping with fear at the idea that she would be associated with fascists, that she would have to live side-by-side with those she most despised. And as she cried I became immobile. I was struck by the fear that I would be the person that she, or anyone else, couldn’t bear to be associated with. I felt so deeply that those right-wing extremists were just looking for some meaning in their lives, something to work for and be a part of, and in their search some had chosen environmentalism. I became tense and my eyes filled with tears. I spoke out, ‘You have to include them, you can’t turn them away. They’re just looking for a home. Everyone’s just looking for a home’.
Such personal revelations as described above are undoubtedly beneficial, character building experiences – but they don’t necessarily change how we treat each other. Unsurprisingly, the conflicts that came to the course remained. There was no group orgy and there was no pretence that all would now be well. The residents of Sieben Linden did not invite the facilitator to their community in order to solve their ills; they understand nothing comes easy and are searching for ways to better understand each other and live in further peace.
The intentional community of Sieben Linden has no explicit philosophy. It does not demand a belief system from it’s members other than a respect for ecological sustainability. They have an involved and participatory local government which aims to allow roles for any member of the community. What they don’t have is a social system which actively empowers the vulnerable. They don’t have a way to ensure the less confident and the less eloquent amongst them feel strong and smart enough to join in. But what they do have is a commitment to their harmonious vision which pushes them to explore new forms of communication and human understanding. They are willing to make themselves vulnerable and uncomfortable – to go through tiring and emotionally draining practices such as Process Work – in order to build a more honest living environment and a more equal and democratic system under which to live. They may like singing songs and holding hands, but the residents of Sieben Linden are working hard to push themselves out of their comfort zone and into a deeper knowledge of the human condition.