The Social Architecture
Michael Jones, Pianoscapes.2006
This excerpt is part of a chapter in Artful Leadership:
Awakening the Commons of the Imagination. The chapter
offers a general exploration of the commons and its role in
creating a renewed sense of place and connection in our communities
and organizations. As in other chapters, this exploration
takes the form of a dialogue with John, a successful senior
leader with whom Michael enjoyed many conversations on long
walks in a lakeside park near his home.
Making Wholeness Visible
The root of the commons is found in communities of gift exchange
(Hyde, 1979). And the basic structure of a gift community
is a tripod. That is, for the gift to increase it needs to
pass from one person to the next to a third. If the gift is
offered to only one person it might best be called a transaction
a form of barter or exchange. But when it is passed
through the second to the third, a circuit emerges, creating
a space where the gift is transformed. It is the presence
of the third that ensured the stability of gift communities
for thousands of years. It also ensures the stability of the
When the gift returns to the gift-giver and the gift
always returns it does so in a form different from
the way it was first offered. However, when the third interaction
is absent the emphasis nearly always centers on transactional
processes such as the give-and-take found in teaching, discussion
or debate. As the circle of gift exchange grows in size, there
is also a corresponding increase in the value of the gift
itself. This sense of belonging, interconnectedness and shared
value accounts for the vitality of gift exchange and the enduring
nature of the common space. As Lewis Hyde, who writes beautifully
about gift economies says, they grow the more they are used.
So while they may need material goods to function, the gift
economy's real wealth- generating capacity derives primarily
from a social commerce of the creative spirit."
So when the space opened by the third becomes present, alchemy
happens and transformation is possible. The attitude engendered
by the continuity of gift-giving is quite naturally one of
humility in the presence of something larger than ourselves.
It is this yielding to the spirit of otherness including
an ongoing process of differentiation and deepening integration
that ensures the fertility of the imagination and invites
more wholeness into the creative field.
So in the commons the alchemy of the third is found in wholeness.
This suggests that when the question arises in those beginning
the practice of the commons, "Is this a commons?"
it may be answered by sensing how much wholeness is present
and actualized. And because wholeness is invisible, we know
it primarily through its effects. For example, we may know
we are in the presence of wholeness when we feel ourselves
to be deeply heard, perhaps because there is sufficient stillness
amongst us to allow what we say to be fully received. Or suddenly
we sense that our voice carries new clarity and strength,
and those with us can hold strong voices without fear. Perhaps
we know it because we feel whole and complete, and there is
a warmth in us that lets us engage the deeper subtleties of
meaning and connection. Often there is an accompanying, heightened
trust in ourselves and others, so that we can move with grace
and ease from a reliance on memory and past knowledge to the
forming of new insights. Or we know that wholeness is present
because we feel involved and engaged, that is we feel that
we have a home here; the essence of our gifts has been taken
in and embodied by the whole.
Most important, it is the sense that the part of us that
has felt orphaned in the world has now been taken in by the
commons. This makes room for us to find our own thinking,
and follow our own feeling in a way that is free from any
need for defensiveness or self-deception. This in turn makes
the fuller experience of wholeness possible. Furthermore,
to be in the presence of wholeness is to acknowledge that
it cannot ever be replicated; it comes to us as a gift and
in a moment that is unique and unrepeatable.
The freedom, humility and respect invoked in the commons
invites a step-by-step progression towards the commons becoming
more and more as it was designed to be. That is, as the commons
emerges, participants focus less on trying to set an agenda
and more on allowing each moment to complete itself with a
sense of clarity, insight, simplicity and ease. There are
a few other practices that help to deepen this attitude and
also invite in wholeness in such a profound way.
Articulating the Field
The commons is a listening field within which we may reawaken
to the longing, wonder and belonging from which all new life
begins. It offers a remedy for the isolation, loneliness and
absence of meaning that have become the sickness of our time.
It does so by reacquainting us with a living language - of
words that convey more than statistics, facts or hard truths
- so that we might again find our own relationship with the
roots of language.
From the beginning of time people have been aware that the
spoken word can transform life experience in ways that no
written words can. We also know that the words that transform
most are often spoken out of the need of the moment, and so
are formed on the tongue as we speak. It is this spontaneity
of speaking - in words that are subjective and qualitative
- that so often reawakens our deep sense of longing and wonder,
just as it has from the first times humans came together to
When we demythologized our world in favor of the different
power of the more "practical" intellect, the evocative
power of language as an expression of the gift was largely
lost. Language became comprised of prescriptions for human
conduct rather than as a source of inspiring the human spirit.
In fact, we became so distant from this evocative power of
language that we began to mistrust it. Because it had become
an instrument for furthering self-interest, it was no longer
seen as trustworthy as an instrument for articulating the
truth of the moment or the Word.
In the presence of the commons, however, those that have
received the gift of speech quite likely may say in disbelief,
"Did I really say that?" We may also kneel in gratitude
for what has just been given. We might also be a little uncomfortable,
perhaps feeling that we said too much or that we haven't really
earned the right to speak. But the commons is primarily for
language making, for the purpose of creating a vibrant and
living language that helps us not only interact with our world
but to also transform our place in it.
Leading From Behind
In the Quaker tradition there is a practice of following the
leadings of the moment. This is also the leadership practice
followed by the commons. The intent of the commons is to free
us from prescribed action in order to connect with an organic
impulse that can lead to a more cohesive basis for acting.
"And we can only connect with this impulse by going
slowly," John broke in to finish my train of thought.
"But slowly means different things for different people,"
"You mean my slow is your fast!"
"Yes," I laughed. "I noticed that watching
you drive out here in your Porsche! But seriously, in this
context it means going slowly enough that you are guided not
only by an arbitrary schedule of needs but rather by what
feels natural and true. This includes noticing where we are
stuck or unclear, and staying with this awareness without
trying to force the issue or push things through."
"I guess to do this," John said, "would mean
that we must admit that we don't always know everything."
"Exactly," I replied. "And this may also explain
why the commons gradually disappeared. We thought we no longer
needed what it might teach us. Science gave us the false sense
of assurance that we had penetrated life's most puzzling mysteries.
But as David Orr (Orr wrote an essay titled Slow Knowledge
which is explored earlier in the chapter) suggests, each
problem we solve inevitably leads to other problems that are
larger and more complex than the first. The practical intellect
is no longer adequate. We need instead to learn to remythologize
our world; to acknowledge the larger mystery of being and
dwell together in creation as we consider all that we don't
"So," said John, "in the world where there
is a constant drive for solutions it sounds like the commons
is a kind of place of last resort - a place where we can be
with our not knowing."
"Yes. And not knowing can be liberating in that
it opens us to a deeper forward moving impulse that connects
us to an infinite world of possibility. That is, as soon as
we 'know' with certainty it sets us on a course of action
- one in which our focus shifts from process to outcomes,
and present-moment awareness is replaced with expectations
of the future. This often impedes this forward movement. And
what connects us t most directly to this natural forward movement
are our gifts more so than our trained skills."
"And in the transition to outcomes something is lost,"
John said. "I know this from my own experience, when
I start focusing primarily on a goal my vision constricts.
I think most of us are also much more familiar with living
in a world of intention than in one of open
"Yes. Exploring how to be with the moment instead of
trying to figure out what to do with it is a subtle
but important shift, and one that can determine whether the
spirit of the commons stays alive. This is why 'leading from
behind' and noticing what latent capacities are emerging rather
than being certain of the way and convincing others to follow
is crucial to leadership in the commons. It helps a whole
community be with the not knowing and acknowledging it as
a legitimate place to be. In it, we follow the leadings and
notice what is being offered rather than push for solutions,
answers or closure."
"I know what you mean," John said. "I often
talk about the importance of listening for the space between,
but in reality there is a part of me that pushes to get to
the other side. Even though I acknowledge that confusion and
uncertainty are a part of learning, I want to get through
things rather than dwell on them. I'll accept confusion but
not for very long."
"Yet it may be that confusion and uncertainty is our
new reality," I said. "What the commons offers is
the opportunity to make a place for a new intelligence to
guide us one that we would not have been as open to
if we continued with the same certainty we had about things
in the past."
"For example, jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, upon reflecting
on his work with keyboardist Lyle Mays on one of their most
adventurous collaborations, said that what made the most difference
for both of them was that they forced nothing and followed
everything. In the past when an idea came they would
look at each other and ask themselves if it was worthwhile
or had merit. Only if the answer was 'yes' would they give
it their attention. But on one project they accepted everything
as worthwhile, no matter how insignificant or puzzling it
This also serves as a rule of thumb for leading from behind.
To be open and accepting of whatever comes is an instruction
in learning to trust in life's natural forward movement. The
reward is that by being open to the changing form of things
we become more and more like ourselves, made as living examples
of change itself.
Process is Content
The next principle of the commons follows from the last. To
lead from behind, following the direction of emerging creation,
means that the spirit of the commons usually unfolds from
the process itself. That is, the primary influences that shape
the commons do not come from the outside in, but rather from
the inside out. As a generative space the commons is not designed
to be or do anything outside of what unfolds within
the structure itself. This is not to impose an arbitrary rule
on the commons, but rather suggests that whatever is imposed
on the commons will likely turn out to be not as rich, unique,
original or as memorable as what unfolds from within the structure
To be open does not necessarily mean "anything goes,"
as there may well be suggestions or guidelines a social
infrastructure that ensures that there is both safety
and boundaries for those who participate. But these are often
set as possibilities to consider rather than as rules to enforce
so that there is not too much "sameness" among those
who join in.
"So," John said, "With the kind of perception
you've been describing I'm assuming that we'd be able to see
some of the deeper layers of intention beneath the surface
of things, which would be extremely useful. I'm also
hearing you say that we'd be able to sense the context and
direction for the next step, which must take an inordinate
trust in the process."
"Yes," I said. "What makes it even more challenging
is that when the process itself is equivalent to content,
the seeds for the unfoldment often appear at the last possible
moment, and so are rarely obvious when we begin."
"As I've been understanding it," John said, "the
focus is not so much in what we bring to the commons but how
present we are in it. In this sense the commons serves
as a practice field for perceiving complexity doesn't it?"
"That's well put," I replied. "Although I
don't want to give the impression that the content of conversation
in the commons is irrelevant. In practice we may bring insight
from anywhere, even though we don't know how exactly it will
fit. What is interesting is that when participants feel at
ease they are likely to sense and follow the seeds of possibility
in increasingly accurate and complex ways, which further builds
confidence in participation. If the atmosphere is tense or
critical it is going to be hard for anyone to sense what is
"I see," John said. "All of this sounds almost
too good to be true. What happens when there are differences
"It's true that no issue is entirely black and white.
There will always be shades of grey. The pacing of the commons
encourages us to move beyond arbitrary and simplistic points
of view. Because when these are pursued honestly they will
usually lead to insights that are greater and more complex
than the sum of the positions in the room. So a working premise
for the commons is that we are not our positions."
"I suppose," John replied, "that if we're
going to participate in the commons we might as well assume
the virtue, as it were, to accept that we're in this together
and need to cooperate in order to accomplish something that
none of us could do by ourselves."
"Yes. And this insight, as obvious as it might sound,
is key to forming a commons space it fulfills a human
promise that we cannot fulfill on our own. Sometimes we may
feel encumbered by the presence of others and would prefer
to push forward by ourselves, but the underlying premise here
is that we cannot do this independently. The complexity we
are engaged in needs not only others but a clear reverence
for 'otherness' including the inherent 'mystery' of
the other to hold together the fine web of complexity
that makes up the evolving nature of our world."
"And," I added, "there is also a very fine
line between differentiating the field and complicating it.
In fact, whatever we bring into awareness is easily complicated,
particularly if interventions are introduced that communicate
a sense of impatience, tension or force."
"I can see that," John said. "And I can also
see how complications arise when we get ahead of the process
itself. Either we lose the thread of connection and meaning
the golden thread that we spoke of earlier in poet
William Stafford's work or get impatient with the process.
But as you suggest there is a forward movement to things and
they will continue to unfold below the threshold of our own
awareness even when we no longer sense that anything is happening
John continued. "I believe that it would help if we
considered all our engagements in generative processes to
be fragile. This is partly why I've been thinking that I need
to bring a more subtle intelligence to the processes I've
been involved with."
I smiled. "Yes, it is strong but our connection to it
is sometimes weak. We really are investigating a new aspect
of human consciousness here, aren't we? It's much more fluid,
refined and fragile than anything we've been accustomed to.
So if we hold this as a practice field, and not as something
that only succeeds if we achieve something in a traditional
way, then much more will be possible between us."
John took a deep breath. We walked slowly for a while as he
took this in.
"In part," he said, "I think it's fragile
because we have to take much more time in waiting and listening
than in acting when we are engaged in commons work. Thinking
of the people I work with, I know this is likely to cause
an enormous sense of frustration if we equate waiting with
a loss of or waste of time."
"Yes," I said. "To engage the commons we must
often stand up to the violence of our own nature, including
our impatience and despair."
"Given this," John said, "how do we
trust our careers or lives, for that matter
to this kind of awareness, especially in a world that hardly
ever respects deeper inquiry? And in what I'd call an age
of entitlement, where time is somehow our property, how do
we actually give ourselves over to a process whose
outcome seems so much outside our control, and for which there
is no guaranteed return?"
"Good questions," I said. "First it is helpful
to create parallel processes so that we don't overload the
commons space. For example, the commons doesn't replace operational
meetings. It can, however, enrich them by having a process
where, by moving further 'upstream' back from the action,
there is an opportunity take the time for a deeper consideration
for slow knowledge to do the things that fast knowledge
"Makes sense," John said.
"Furthermore, even when people feel the impulse for
change, it almost always comes with a healthy resistance to
change even if it doesn't freely show itself up front.
A commons space makes a place for it and widens our lens of
perception so that we may, at the least, acknowledge its presence.
We do this by listening together without judgment upon what
is coming into awareness, acknowledging its presence and staying
with it in a way that does not require it to change."
"Which probably lets change come a whole lot easier,"
"Yes. And we need to be open all the way through this
process, as it tends to lead to a deeper restructuring of
awareness than anyone might predict. Something is already
functioning below our radar, so while nothing may appear
to be happening at one level, everything may be happening
"Fascinating." John said, " I remember reading
that Brahms once said most of his music composing did not
occur while he was in his studio, but while he was outdoors
taking his regular daily walks. He would get the process started
and then the rest unfolded on its own."
"Exactly. A conversation in the commons works in a similar
fashion. It is like a musical composition. We get it started
and then there is this ongoing elaboration, both conscious
and unconscious, that unfolds as we go."
John's eyes brightened. "It is iterative, isn't it?
We bring ourselves to the commons and at the same time the
commons comes to us, each amplified in the presence of the
"That's it, precisely. It's in that space between seeing
and being seen where wholeness lives. And this leads
us to another principle of the commons."
Catalyzing the Space
Like a garden that can support many diverse species of plants,
the commons is most fertile when its multiple and unique
centers interact with one another, each creating a dynamic
latticework of spaces between. Such gathering places appear
most naturally in spaces that appeal to the perennial human
attraction to nourishment. This may take the form of soup
kitchens, farmer's markets, neighborhood bars, food courts,
cafés, country stores or front porches. These are the
modern equivalents of the village greens of times past. These
common places fulfill our natural appetite and the attendant
desire to belong to something a physical space, a group,
an idea that catalyzes something outside of and larger
"You could say that nourishment tends to convene,"
"Yes. We hunger for this kind of space in part because
it is deeply ingrained in our nature. Often we are disappointed,
however, because the modern equivalents of the commons do
not satisfy our real appetite. These substitutes are either
too superficial or too goal-oriented, which doesn't allow
for a real space of authentic, neutral and free connection
nor does it encourage us to reframe our questions and
think in new ways."
As John and I reflected on the design of a commons space,
we reviewed a meeting we had organized for his senior leaders
to rethink their plan for regionalization. As with his earlier
retreat, instead of conducting the meeting onsite or in a
hotel we scheduled it in a restaurant. It had large, south-facing
windows, a wide selection of hanging plants and an open kitchen
where food was being prepared as we set up the meeting. We
also brought in a piano so that we could create a space for
deep listening and reflection. The simple shift in venue,
combined with the aromas of food cooking, music, conversation
and abundant light changed the way leaders considered restructuring
their organization. The setting served as a metaphor for taking
the raw ingredients of organizational charts, policies and
procedures the mechanics of the organization
and transforming them into a more resilient living structure.
"In the future," I reflected, "leaders will
need to be designers of space places that are welcoming,
stimulating, comfortable and inviting. In other words, they
need to be sensual. Too often we select spaces based on convenience;
these spaces tend to be utilitarian and do not inspire real
"I so agree," John said. "Using your earlier
analogy, it's like seeding plants in poor soil with inadequate
care and attention and expecting them to flourish."
And this leads to another of the rules of thumb for the commons:
The commons always emerges around what is most nourishing
and alive. It arises spontaneously in meeting spaces and
around subjects or questions that satisfy our essential hunger
to belong to something that engages us, while allowing us
to be at ease. These are the spaces that uniquely hold our
interest, be they invitations to sit by the fire, to be more
in touch with music and art and nature whatever might
open new channels of insight and thought. They invite us to
suspend what we know and join in a process that awaken us
to a new world of possibility.
What contributes to strengthening these centers is giving
attention to both the aesthetic design and the intensification
of the spaces we create. These are spaces that are more people
centered than building centered. The aesthetics of
these places help make it attractive and livable. Such a space
may include water fountains, art or sculpture. Also music,
stories or plays add texture and dimension. Such places also
typically offer benches and chairs to sit on, but are organized
in such a way that they naturally draw people to conversation
rather than isolate them from one another.
"It's interesting that we picked that restaurant to
meet in," John said. "It was small in comparison
to a hotel's meeting space, for example. I remember we were
concerned that it would disturb the group, because they are
accustomed to more space. But you are suggesting that it is
actually more helpful to draw people closer together
almost uncomfortably so so that they can deepen their
connection with one another."
"Yes. And to discover the patterns that connect us with
a place it is helpful to ask, what feels right and alive about
this space? What elements seem to contribute to its sense
of aliveness? And perhaps most importantly, which element,
if it were taken away, would we miss the most?"
"And yet I notice," said John, "how many so-called
beautification projects don't work. I believe it is because
the beauty in them is imported, and is so obviously contrived.
I think it would be far better to look out for what is already
working and build on that."
"Indeed. The commons frequently forms naturally on street
corners, in parks, between buildings anywhere that
people want to gravitate together. Wherever wholeness already
exists, people will naturally go; the best development of
a commons space is to build on or intensify what is already
"And," I added, "the word intensify
is interesting in this context. Sometimes in the interest
of efficiency we spread people and functions around in whatever
spaces happen to be available, and the power in them tends
to dissipate before it can accumulate. An additional problem
with this approach is that it works against people's natural
tendency to want to be in close proximity to one another,
as they do in markets and food courts. Such places have built-in
natural attractors such as food, sensation, silence and sound
rather than just a sense of obligation to go to work. We could
call such spaces where people willingly congregate 'hubs of
intensification,' because intensity is a natural byproduct
of such gathering. This is a phenomenon that cannot occur
when structures, functions or people are widely separated
from one another."
"That's exactly what we wanted to address with our regionalization
program," John said. "Our structures of communication
were too widely separated and people were far too spread out.
The restaurant setting gave us a feeling for what we were
striving for. Once we had experienced something different
in microcosm we saw how we could create a similar template
in our organization, one that had the same feeling of closeness
In matters of finding commons space we often discover that
more emerges than is made something innovative and
surprising often appears when we recognize what is already
present. A natural step that follows in this process is to
consider how to allow each of the emerging parts to evolve
in its own way. If more is needed, then we can look
at how to introduce more elements from outside.
Creating an Impersonal Fellowship
"Taking this idea that more emerges than is made,"
John said, "I think of that old story about Michelangelo,
who said he could sense the figure in the uncut stone; his
job was just to chip away the marble until it appeared."
"Yes," I said. "To be in the commons also
involves, like with Michelangelo, the ability to strip down
and clear away; it is the skill of simplification, of removing
unnecessary clutter so that we can discern what is trying
to happen naturally. And we do this best by listening into
ourselves as well as into the commons space."
John thought about that for a moment and added, "This
is why my own journey of personal transformation has been
so important. It has connected me to my core essence
the gift of who I am, behind the clutter."
"And it helps to meet each other in an 'impersonal field,"
I said. "This is not an indifferent field, but is more
of a neutral setting where we can pay attention to that which
is forming as much as to what has already been formed
and to which we are likely somewhat attached."
"Which means that we need to be discerning with regards
to how much we introduce from outside this place of commons,"
John said. "I know how much more adept we are at filling
space than emptying it."
"What makes the commons unique is its simplicity,"
I said. "It is simple because it is natural. It is free
of complication because it is as yet 'unclaimed' by any group
or philosophy. It is a blank canvas. But there are many who
would like to tell us what that picture ought to look like.
And those pictures are being written on many canvases that
were once blank and filled with potential. How easily we can
be enclosed in demands and perceived needs and fail to discover
how to make a common life one based on respect and
equanimity with one another."
"What I see," John said, "is that each action
narrows the field of possibility; by moving in one direction
it closes other choices."
"I agree," I said. "By holding the commons
as a space of impersonal fellowship we are free to follow
a course of inquiry based on the collective sensing rather
than according to personal need. This requires discipline
to keep our own impatience with the process from pushing us
in one direction or the other."
"I understand," John replied. "As you were
underlining, by staying close to our collective sensibility
we can bring into awareness what is forming rather than only
what is formed."
"Right. And as before, there are some questions we can
ask that will keep us moving forward together. They include:
What are we uneasy about? What are our inklings and urgings?
What is drawing our attention? What are our edges, and can
we describe them? What feels fresh and new? These questions
and others help us become more aware of our 'impersonal field.'
To speak from this awareness before it becomes personal
that is, before it becomes processed, filed and catalogued
as part of our own personal history is how we can build
a common life together."
"This means," John said, "that we will be
more successful meeting around the edges of our awareness
rather than around our certainties."
"Yes. Our certainties often represent one of the weakest
parts of the commons structure."
"Weakest? How so?"
"By weak I mean 'not much energy.' It's like
trying to have a conversation with someone who already has
all the answers, when it is the doubts and uncertainties that
move us forward. Such vulnerability brings us into true fellowship
with one another so that we become more than our individual
personalities. This means that we listen to the unfolding
of the whole without trying to make things personal. By keeping
our attention focused on the flow of our inquiry we create
a collective presence that may yield perceptions without precedent."
"We make it personal," John added, "when no
matter what is said we find ourselves responding by saying,
'Okay - now let me tell you what happened to me!"
"Yes. This pattern brings everything back to the personal.
It also clutters the space with reporting on events, which
draws our attention away from sensing the emerging patterns
of the whole.
"In a sense," I added, "think of how conversations
might go if we were free to speak with no expectation or need
of a response."
"That would be truly remarkable, and it would radically
change the patterning. For one thing," John laughed,
"I would be less distracted by thinking about what others
were thinking. It would also slow my own thought process,
which would free me to follow the thread of my own perception
not as a reaction to the other but from what was arising
in the listening field itself."
"That's it! Then your words are free to resonate with
what you are really hearing and you can follow this until
it settles, without someone immediately picking up on it."
"I noticed that occurring in one of our meetings,"
John said, "when you suggested that we sit with what
we heard and only speak when it felt natural to do so. That
was remarkable, because we so rarely seem to act naturally.
It is almost always according to need or expectation."
"And that brings us back to the gift," I replied.
"We each carry the gift of our own presence in a unique
and beautiful way. The commons helps us see this gift more
clearly. It does so because ultimately the purpose of the
gift is twofold to help us to shine and at the same
time illuminate the common space to make it whole. In fact
it is by calling out the gift in the other that the commons
renews and refreshes itself and its long-term sustainability
We had walked to the edge of the beach and now stepped carefully
through the cedar bush. The aroma of fresh cedar was so intense
that it was almost difficult to inhale. As our senses adjusted,
however, it filled our nostrils with a richly pungent odour
that mingled with the damp earth beneath our feet. The path
narrowed for a time and we walked in single file, stepping
over old logs and mossy outcrops of rock. The wind had come
up again, but it moved the leaves quietly. The silence was
broken only by the sound of waves breaking on the shore a
little further ahead. We stopped at the same moment to listen.
These times of pause had become one of the unexpected treasures
of our walks together.
A Company of Strangers
To serve the commons is to be willing to hold presence with
the unknown. As we explored earlier, the commons is based
in this experience of impersonal fellowship, one founded upon
a sense of shared respect and hospitality with others who
are "strangers" to one another. (Palmer, 1992)
In this respect the commons is not a community, because a
community no matter how inclusive tends to define
itself according to who does and does not belong. Instead,
the commons represents a "company of strangers"
joined together in a mutual journey of discovery.
To ensure this presence of "strangeness" a commons
is often not complete until at least three and ideally four
generations are together in the room. This brings the culture
in and ensures that there will be different perspectives than
we are accustomed to.
"When I think of it," John said, "many of
the meetings that have led to my own transformation have been
with strangers. It is a unique relationship in that people
share neither history nor an anticipated future together."
"In the company of strangers," I said, "we
are able to speak freely with no agendas to overshadow the
time together. Yet in our quest for 'intimacy,' or simply
to achieve results, we often avoid strangers, including,"
I added at the risk of sounding a little mysterious,"
the stranger that is ourself."
"I agree. In my company we gravitate toward the same
people time after time. I realize how little we welcome strangers
in our midst. If we can't meet the stranger in our community
then we also will be reluctant to meet the stranger in ourselves."
With the decline of the commons we have turned away from
strangeness. With this has come a fear of otherness as well.
We may not want to take the time to develop a connection with
someone with whom we do not feel at home. Nor do we want to
take a risk with someone when the outcome is not guaranteed.
And yet when we take this stance, we miss the opportunity
to recognize how the power of holding strangers as equals
within the larger body of the human community is a form of
home in itself. It releases an energy of potential that will
not arise in any other way; that is, it does not arise when
we are trying to move towards others to help them or against
others to compete with them, because when the relationship
involves being either over or under another, this potential
for real connection is often lost. The gift of authentic expression
lies in this space between two or more who respect one another
in a spirit of true equanimity.
Because individuals are strangers to each other in one dimension,
they are free to draw deeply from the depth of conversation
and shared insight that arises in response. That is, since
no one is expected to assume a personal obligation or commitment
or rigidly advance a particular point of view or position,
each is liberated to direct his or her full creative energy
to the questions that arise. By allowing for this sense of
distance there is also a safety and, with it, the feeling
that we won't be overburdened by additional obligations to
keep up the relationship outside the boundaries of the commons
itself. What this means in practice is that the commons represents
a moment in time, a moment which is enriched when our full
attention is given to it and not dissipated through directing
our attention and energy to creating long-term relationships
or community or other forms of emotional bonding.
By engaging with one another in this spirit of "impersonal"
reciprocity and with the purpose of uncovering deeper realities
for thinking and action while at the same time remaining
strangers to one another with regards to background and the
intimate details of our lives the commons concentrates
our mind on this possibility of a new kind of interpersonal
discovery. It is one that is furthered by asking not what
we do, but who we are, where we belong, what we see and how
Creating Spheres of Disinterest
The greatest challenge for the commons is that it is taken
captive for other purposes. What sustains the commons is not
self-interest, or other-interest, but disinterest.
Disinterest is not indifference or a lack of interest but
rather the suspension of self-interest including the promotion
of a dominant point of view in order to create anew. The commons
exists at the threshold of emerging and often competing
interests. The beauty of the common space is the sense
it can hold it all that the potential of the moment
is unprecedented. Entering into it without expectation conveys
the sense of its newness. So to engage it fully we need to
hold the commons as a neutral space.
John looked out on the lake from where we sat in the shade
of a tree by the shore. "Neutral space is the easiest
to conceive of," he said, "but the hardest to find.
It is very challenging to suspend our interests."
"Because the commons does not belong to anyone,"
I said, "it belongs to everyone. Letting something
unfold naturally in a spirit of equanimity can only occur
when there is a shared investment in which no one person holds
the sole influence in the possible outcome or end state."
"This is the risk, isn't it?" John added. "When
self-interest serves as the primary initiating motivator for
the forming of the commons, it can also be the primary finishing
motivator. That is, as we've discussed, when there is no longer
perceived to be a strategic advantage or self- interest to
the commons there often is no longer the motivation to continue."
For revelation to be received the commons must be grounded
in a different order than self-interest. This is why the true
commons now exists at the margins of our society, in places
that do not attract a strong economic self-interest. In fact,
random encounters and found space are now more likely to occur
where there is the least intrusion of interventions that may
try to alter circumstances by effort or force. While self-interest
is aligned with predetermined goals and outcomes, desires
for mastery and issues of ownership or control, disinterest
is more likely to arise in situations where the problems are
ill defined, the solutions are vague or unknown and the appropriate
responses seemingly untrainable.
"We don't necessarily give up," I added,
"but we give in. By yielding we move gradually
towards a more inclusive and transcendent dimension of being."
"You mean there may be a limit to being smart and clever,"
"Yes, and perhaps the commons only seems to emerge fully
when the other option is war or devastation of some kind.
Then we have no other choice but to look for fresh perceptions
ways of seeing that are not limited to pre - existing
Set free from previous conditioning and with no common history
to inhibit us, we can create our own space of presence and
belonging the wildness of the commons as "a space
between" offers a fresh start.
"Wildness," John laughed. "I would say
that you have taken me through a wild ride as we've talked
about gifts, beauty, spontaneity and voice, but wildness
As we watched dark clouds form on the far horizon, John was
curious about how this theme had suddenly sprung up, and where
it would take us next.
"The dimensions of the imagination we have been exploring
have one thing in common," I said. "They are with
us but not of us. At least not entirely. They find
their home in the larger-than-human world. As such, we may
think of them as we might think of wild animals bold,
shy and unpredictable. We need to approach them in a similar
way; that is, by assuming that they do not belong to us but
rather that we both belong to a world that is at the same
time luminous and mysterious.
"It is a recurring theme throughout all of creation,
that a portion of the work is through dedicated labor and
the rest is through invocation. We need to court the commons
in much the same way as we might court a wild animal.
"And," I added, "we have forgotten how to live
in a world in which we do not control as much as we co-participate
with these larger dimensions of life."
"What this means for us," John said, "is that
we need to develop this subtler and more refined intelligence
in order to meet this same intelligence that exists as wholeness
at the edges of our known world
(Michael's conversation with John continues to explore
the nature of the commons and how, as it expands, we also
expand and learn to stand more fully in our new life.)
* The Social Architecture of Leadership is excerpted from
the chapter Awakening Wholeness, Discovering the Commons and
a New Centre of Being in Artful Leadership; Awakening the
Commons of the Imagination. Pianoscapes 2006. For information,
or to order, please write firstname.lastname@example.org
or call 866 876 0932
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