Wednesday, November 29, 2006

What are your rituals for the season?

I've been reading a book written by Human Potential Movement leader Jean Houston more than 25 years ago. It's called Life Force: The Psycho-Historical Recovery of the Self. Houston, who was mentored by such seminal figures as Margaret Mead and Teilhard de Chardin, acquired a very broad view of history and culture from a young age. Throughout her career she has been interested in the use of ritual to tap into our connections to our historical roots.

Houston says: "The word rite comes from the same root as art and order. Like all real art, like the movements of sacred dances, ritual provides organic order, a pattern of dynamic expression through which the energy of an event or series of events can flow in an evolutionary process toward a larger meaning or a new stage or level of life. It offers us ways in which our transitions may be illuminated." Houston believes that rituals can help illuminate cultures, evoking hope during a time of societal transition. As the year 2006 wanes without the characteristic cold and snow of other late Novembers, I long for a ritual awakening of hope and possibility.

Our seasonal transition in late November is towards the holidays, Christmas for Christians, Hanukkah for the Jews, Kwanzaa for African Americans, secular celebrations for others. What are the rituals that we use to commemorate this seasonal transition, with shortening days as we approach the winter solstice?

Many people engage in the rituals of house decoration, decorating their yards with pumpkins and scarey figures during Halloween, turkeys during Thanksgiving, and myriad lights, sculptures, and creches during Christmas. Good rituals are rich in sensory detail. Are they doing so because they crave more sensory participation in the seasonal transition? It seems as though there are 2 kinds of people, those who decorate, and those who don't. I am of the second type. Those who throw themselves most whole-heartedly into the trappings of the holiday may be putting a great deal of emphasis on the externals, in the hope that they will be echoed by inner feelings of happiness and peace. We approach this time of year with a great desire for illumination, and similarly try to fill it with rituals of holiday parties, shopping, gift-giving, travel and decorating.

What I hunger for during this time of year is a sense of mystery, and I don't get it through the external trappings. My most memorable Christmas eve was a quiet walk at night with a friend through snow, out to a bridge over a river. Our path was illumined by moonlight. As we approached the river, which appeared to be frozen over, we heard a thundering sound in the water. Was it a beaver, signalling alarm, or a very large fish jumping? It was too dark to see, but it didn't matter. Our walk was a ritual made us feel connected to some deep and beautiful mystery.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Talk in a Box

On Thanksgiving, our family spent a little time playing with a game I discovered in a magazine. It's called Talk in a Box, and it is simply a box with a series of questions on cards that can be used to inspire conversation. Around the table, there is plenty of random chatter about family and food: where my sister-in-law got the recipe for the Bourbon sweet potatoes, how Uncle Vic is doing, and memories of Thanksgivings past. Conversations tend to fall in familiar patterns, and there's not necessarily anything wrong with that.

But I like to mix things up a little, and Talk in a Box is a method that allow for that. I asked my mother to go through the box and pick some questions that she thought would be interesting for dicussion on Thanksgiving Day. Learning what questions excite people is part of what fosters good conversation. The questions I find intriguing might leave someone else flat.

The most memorable question (to me) around our table was: If you could spend a day with anyone (unknown to you) of your choosing, who would it be? Some of the answers around the table were: the comedian Robin Williams, human potential movement figure Jean Houston, and investor Warren Buffett. From the conversation that ensued I learned that in addition to being a comic genius, Williams does a lot of charity work.

Conversational skills are said to be declining, due to our busy lifestyles, dispersed families, and the large amount of time we spend watching TV or surfing the internet (my vice). My own thirst for conversation is affected by a somewhat isolated lifestyle. As a self-employed artist and writer I don't have a lot of work colleagues. Writing this blog is one attempt to start a conversation. I'm not forcing myself on anyone, however. I like the randomness that might bring a conversant here.

I'm going to keep looking for flesh-and-blood conversants on topics of interest to me. In the meantime, I'll pick a Talk in the Box question each day, and think about it. Today's question: "What sounds do I find soothing? Troubling or disturbing?" I enjoy the chatter of birds in the morning. As a child, the sound of my mother ironing, the soft thud of the iron combined with the hiss of steam, signaled comfort to me. Troubling sounds are usually harsh mechanical sounds, chainsaws, motorcycles or lawn-mowers. We do seem to have a lot of noise pollution in our lives. But I'll leave that subject for another conversation.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Breaking out of the old molds

I am spending much of my time getting ready for Thanksgiving, family arriving and the holiday season. My sister and I agreed that we would make gifts for one another this Christmas, rather than going out buying something that we weren’t sure the other person needed. So, I have been trying to think about what aspects of my life, my experience, or the work of my hands are really worth sharing with my sister’s family. It is a challenge to break out of the old Christmas mold.

A friend said: “oh, you’re an artist, that will be easy.” But it isn’t, because my artistic side seems to be resting right now, waiting for a new sense of meaning to animate it. I consider the situation of my fellow artists in this corner of the state. Most of them are getting ready for Christmas sales, making things large and small to take a guess at what the Christmas consumer would like. They need to make a living, and many enjoy the sense of conversation and appreciation that is aroused in their exchange with potential buyers. In previous years I would have been doing the same thing, applying for Christmas shows, getting things framed, making cards to sell, and so on. It just doesn’t make sense to me anymore, however.

As I was engaged in my preparations I listened to a talk by David Bohm, recorded and in the archives of New Dimensions radio. The talk is titled: “Creativity, Natural Philosophy and Science.” Bohm was a leading theoretical physicist who was also deeply interested in the human condition. In his radio conversation, Bohm said that the sense of rewards and punishments kills creativity. This immediately seemed true to my particular situation. The art world is a rewards and punishments system that has its own internal logic, but it’s often very different from whatever motivates the individual artist.

An artist in touch with her muse can create work that is commercially successful. I started my career as an artist making silk paintings. To my surprise, they started selling. After about five years as a silk painter I wanted to try some different forms of expression. My awkward new works were not welcomed in the small pools in which I introduced them. I kept working away, finding a voice and expression that made sense to me. Trying to take some of these creations and fit them into the rewards and punishment system of the art world felt like trying to put a round peg in a square hole. The system itself loomed as a seemingly insurmountable barrier to my moving forward.

Bohm said that the principal barrier to creativity is the mechanicalness which comes out of excessive thought. We keep thinking, thinking we can find solutions to the problems, but because of the mechanical quality of our thinking, we only encounter more problems. Bohm created a system of dialogue, which he saw as a way of breaking out of our rigidity. The point of dialogue is to look at our own assumptions as well as those of other people—and actually to find a way to suspend your own assumptions. Every once in a while I stumble into such a dialogue with another person, but it is rare indeed. It would be a creative act in itself, to hold our assumptions lightly enough to see them, and let them go in conversation. These kinds of conversations, whether through Bohmian dialogue, or a World CafĂ©, a Thought Leader Gathering or some other system, seem very attractive to me right now. I do see some new form of dialogue as being necessary to my creative process.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

How well do environmental groups work?

What’s the biggest issue for me right now? Effective action, and how to work with others. Recently, 3 members of our local sustainability group met to talk informally about future directions for the organization. Although all 3 of us are interested in sustainable development, we had 3 very disparate views about how an organization goes about carrying out a mission.

One wanted to focus on leadership development, helping people learn about systems thinking. Another wanted the organization to continue operating on an informal, adnoc basis, investigating the potential for various renewable energy projects. I expressed an interest in relocalization planning, an effort that has been launced in a number of communities around the world to respond to the ramifications of peak oil.

In a previous blog I discussed spiral dynamics and how it explains some of the variations in value orientations among people. Our sustainability committee members clearly have a Green value orientation. According to Spiral Dynamics, people with a Green value orientation:

  • Explore the inner beings of self and others
  • Promote a sense of community and unity
  • Share society’s resources among all
  • Liberate humans from greed and dogma
  • Reach decisions through consensus
  • Refresh spirituality and bring harmony

Sounds like sweetness and light, doesn’t it? However, 25 years ago I worked for another organization that clearly had a Green profile. All decisions were made by consensus, including the very difficult decisions of who to fire, due to the loss of a substantial amount of funds. The decision-making process was agonizing and inefficient. When I became director of the organization I knew we could not survive if we continued in our egalitarian decision-making mode.

Now, 25 years later I am again connected to an issue that I have long cared about. In the absence of meaningful action on the federal level, voluntary organizations are sprouting up around the country to work on community responses to sustainability. Renewable energy development, tree planting, and sustainable transportation are some of the initiatives that local folks are taking on. If we are to be successful, we must learn to capitalize on the strengths and overcome the inherent weaknesses of Green thinkers. On the strength side, Greens will be inclusive, welcome the expression of feelings, and idealistic about what can be accomplished. On the weakness side, the Green’s desire to please all people will make it difficult to move to action.

Despite these worries about the weaknesses of groups, there are positive things coming from some of the internet models. The development of Wikipedia is an example of distributed intelligence, where a large and diverse group of people come together to create a constructive resource. I am very curious whether the benefits of distributed intelligence can somehow be marshaled for community-based sustainability solutions. Stay tuned, I’ll report what I find out.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Value Orientations and an Introduction to Spiral Dynamics

Several years ago I first was introduced to a developmental theory called Spiral Dynamics, by a woman who was herself a dynamo. EJ Niles, then a 70 year old Unity minister, had first become attracted to the thought of Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest, paleontologist and philosopher who died in 1955. Teilhard theorized that consciousness has been continually evolving from cell to organism, and that mankind might perfect itself by degrees over time. Her interest in evolution was further piqued by her exposure to the thought of psychologist Clare Graves, as elucidated by Don Beck and Chris Cowan in their book Spiral Dynamics.

The theory of Spiral Dynamics states that consciousness evolves in a somewhat linear manner, from early stages, as for example when babies are solely interested in survival, to more complex stages, as when the individual focuses primarily on protecting and extending their power, to later stages characterized by orientations towards order, progress, and communitarian interests. Niles went on to engage in extensive bible scholarship that revealed how the contents of the bible itself, with its multiple authors and dates of authorship, demonstrated the evolution of consciousness in its expressed world views. You can read more about EJ Niles work at

A good summary of Spiral Dynamics is available at the Wiki site, or at When I first learned about Spiral Dynamics I felt a glimmer of hope about the human condition, a sense of possibility instead of the pessimism I saw all around me. The idea that humans could evolve to a more advanced state meant that we were not condemned as to remain in stages of consciousness that fostered only conflict and gridlock. Perhaps we could as a species evolve to a place where we would begin to have greater understanding of and compassion for others point of view. In the several years since I learned about Spiral Dynamics I have concluded it is a useful tool for understanding the diverse human value orientations that inform a whole range of human actions.

Recently, I have been thinking and writing about the value orientations that Americans bring to the conversation over global warming. Learning how to meet people where their values are, rather than convert them to our view of the world, is the new task of communicators about global warming. Although it is nearly impossible to dislodge people from their fundamental value orientations, you can speak to them in terms they understand, bringing them to understand global warming in their own language.

Our persuasive messages need to reflect an understanding of three main value orientations in America, which affect everything from attitudes towards global warming to gay marriage and war. My understanding of these three groups comes from Spiral Dynamics (SD). The stable center, which I would call the “Order” group (designated as the blue meme in SD) is represented loosely by patriotic, church attending citizens who largely trust figures of authority. Some prominent figures in the evangelical Christian group, which is a subset of this group, became educated about global warming and are now actively promoting behavior change from a stewardship perspective. The term “creation care” resonates with this group. Most of the major Christian denominations have surprisingly progressive language about global warming in their national policy statements. There is a growing opportunity to get these folks enlisted in constructive action as long as you avoid attacking religion, the country, or figures of authority.

The second major group, the “Progess” group (designated as the orange meme in SD), is primarily business or entrepreneurially oriented, believes in progress, and holds optimistic views about the prospects of technology. These are the groups that will figure out how to construct and finance wind turbines, that will put together ethanol plants, that will be the sources of innovation and the designers of the Kyoto accords. Both the Democrats and Republicans have been aiming at this group with a message that says: “our nation’s energy policy is behind the times and needs a new, 21st century approach.” The implication is that technology, innovation, and business will construct rational solutions to the problems posed by global warming. You can alienate this group by suggesting that progress or profits are evil.

The third major group, the “Green” group (also known as the green meme in SD), consists of cultural creatives, feminists, deep ecologists, animal rights advocates, believers in group consensus, teamwork, and social justice. People who call themselves environmentalists belong to this group. Most of the Earth Day celebrations have their appeal here, and the major environmental organizations, Greenpeace, Audobon, Sierra Club and so on draw their support from the Greens. Despite their good intentions, many have argued that this group has lately been unsuccessful in gaining converts to their cause, due in part to communication strategies that are alienating rather than empowering. Greens sometimes express a surplus of outrage and pessimism over global warming, which tends to overwhelm listeners and make them feel that little can be done. On the positive side, Greens are some of the most passionate advocates for environmental restoration.

I am idealistic enough to believe that knowledge about these value differences can help us overcome the conflicts we generate when we disagree with people who have different value orientations. I am also pragmatic enough to recognize that only a small percentage of the population has the ability to step outside of their own values enough to see this big picture.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Coping with speed and complexity

Last night we were scurrying around to eat, get some errands done, and get to the theater on time. I felt an unpleasant amount of tension around this hurrying. And yet the choices I have made make my life a lot less complicated than others. I picture people with full time jobs, kids, demands of school, and I just can’t imagine how it’s done.

I tried to remember if my parents had hectic schedules. I don’t remember them hurrying, I don’t remember a mad rush to get out the door. My father came home for a relaxed lunch. At night, when work was over, it was over. The TV was in the basement and we didn’t spend a lot of time watching it (I watched it more than my parents did). Instead, we read, or puttered around the house.

One thing I am most nostalgic about from my summer vacations as a child is the sense of boredom. I used to whine about it a little, but I was stuck coming up with ways to entertain myself. That amount of free and open time seems like an incomparable luxury today. Somehow I’ve bought into a lot of the cultural messages about accomplishment and activity—I deeply disapprove of myself when I am not doing something productive.

The world is becoming more and more complex. Change is occurring so rapidly in so many systems, there is no way we can keep up with it. A German business magazine, brand eins, gave 8 ways to avoid complexity:
1. Do not do business
2. Reduce your activities to zero
3. Don't leave the house
4. Don't call
5. Don't talk to anybody
6. Stay in bed
7. Close your eyes
8. Stop breathing

I don’t want to avoid complexity, but I am very interested right now in trying to make sense of the way things are unfolding now, the combination of problems and opportunities hitting our communities and our world. If I try to simultaneously consider things like peak oil, global warming, and political changes, the amount of complexity rapidly exceeds my ability to make sense of it all. The only way I seem to be able to continue my sense-making activity is to reduce the stimuli, in some of the ways mentioned on the list above.

Those who are unable to periodically reduce the stimuli, to slow down time just a little, are doomed I fear, to understand things simplistically, or not at all. Art making has a healing quality in this overloaded world of stimulus in which we live. If we can focus our attention on sensory areas: visual information, music, touch or taste, we can cut through the mental clutter. I offer this as a hope for those who want to remain in the world, yet not be totally controlled or overwhelmed by the speed and complexity of these times.

Friday, November 10, 2006

A small town tackles sustainable transportation

I am working on a report about my week promoting sustainable transportation, from October 4-11. We sought to persuade the public to try out walking, bicycling, carpooling, or taking the bus. The campaign involved public relations, strategizing and framing issues, and working with others.

One of the biggest challenges was finding partners with passion or commitment to the vision of the project, which was described as follows:
Our vision is of a community with a multi-faceted transportation system that provides alternatives to driving alone. Reducing the number of vehicles on the road cuts vehicle emissions and noise, decreases congestion, extends the life cycle of existing roadways, promotes a healthier community, reduces need for parking lots, and saves money spent on fuel.

In order to find effective partners for the project, we had to find frames of meaning they would connect to. These were invariably different from my own motivational frames—which were centered around worries about global warming, peak oil, and a personal ethic of thrift, which made me passionate about carpooling. Although there is wide concern about global warming and peak oil, there still is a lot of uncertainty about these issues in many people’s minds. Moreover, the negative effects of these trends will ripple out over decades, and it is difficult to capture attention and action with such a time frame.

The issue of transportation is complex and there is no single group, either public or private that seems inclined to look at it from a systemic basis. For example, the local Chamber of Commerce is very interested in transportation from an infrastructure development perspective, i.e. more roads, more bridges, better airports, etc. The Chamber does not have members clamoring for more carpooling or bicycling however. So creating partnerships with the business community was another challenge.

We were counting on rising fuel prices to create a teachable moment, spurring citizens to consider transportation options from an economic perspective. Unfortunately, fuel prices fell rapidly by $.75 from August to October, alleviating some of the economic worries that had been more intense during the peak summer driving months.

A frame of meaning that ultimately resonated with many people was health and obesity. Many different groups and individuals are worried about the rising health care costs and the epidemic of obesity. Baby boomers are entering early retirement, and their preoccupation with health is causing some of them to get more physically active through walking and bicycling. Businesses are dealing with rising health care bills and see walking and bicycling programs as helping their bottom-line from the prevention perspective.

We learned much about the complexity of this topic and the perspectives of the diverse potential partners. We learned that the reasons that people will try alternatives to the single occupancy vehicle are diverse. These motivations will probably remain in flux based on events beyond our control. Health is probably a good unifying theme for future events: focus on the health of people and health of the planet.

Transportation accounts for about 20% of all greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to concerns about global warming, a parallel discussion is occurring in energy circles over prospect of peak oil. Proponents of peak oil argue that petroleum is the fundamental linchpin of our present democratic society. As cheap oil/energy/gas quietly fades into history, lives around the world will change. Sustainability is about building resilience. Our community, like every other city in North America, needs to build more resilience into its people and transportation systems.

Sustainable transportation is a concern for everyone. Leaders in government and business need to speak out about the disadvantages of our reliance on the single occupancy vehicle. Greater use of all the transportation options will help businesses and individuals save money, prevent obesity and therefore lower health care costs, reduce demand for parking structures, and lower air emissions. Walking, bicycling, carpooling, taking the bus and tellecommuting are the new common sense.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Election results, what is behind the door?

I contributed my share to the mess that is American elections, supporting the candidates of my choice financially, with letters to the editor, an afternoon of telephone calling, and this morning, 4 hours of getting out the vote. My efforts were replicated by thousands of people like me, sincere, well-intentioned, convinced in our beliefs, holding opposing views. All of our grass roots efforts were further multiplied by the mega contributions of the monied, the celebrities who loaned their names to candidates, the corporations who contributed to political action committees, the political operatives, campaign strategists, public servants and crass political opportunists, all of us generating a tremendous din of campaign noise aimed at convincing that small percentage of Americans who are independents, undecided, swing voters, people whose views wavered and moved with the winds of scandal, political fortune, attention and attention-suppression.

During my two hours of telephoning, I felt pure relief every time I got an answering machine or a busy signal. I felt chagrin when a woman would answer the phone, run to get her husband, and then have to give him the bad news that I was calling about politics. The friendly calls were like little oases, the people who didn’t need to be convinced, the saintly few who didn’t melt down with impatience over another political telephone call. I suppose it could be argued that we have to do it because the other side is doing the same thing. But there certainly HAS to be a better way. Couldn’t we find a political genius who instead of applying her skills to manipulating the public, could actually find a way to help us have real conversations with one another about what’s important? Is there no way to put any limits on the senseless political advertising, the sound bites cluttering our mailboxes, emails, and television screens with negative, simplistic argument?

The current election system is an affront to anyone who cares about sustainability. The process of voting is cumbersome, time-consuming and difficult, especially for those who must work a visit to the voting booth into a complicated and busy life. I don’t have too many worries about voting irregularities in Minnesota, but I think the Oregon style mail-in voting process is worth considering.

As I wait like everyone else for the election results, I’ve been working on my painting project. I finished the first layer of decoration for the 3 part screen, settling on a feathery leaf design for the background. I’m not sure yet what additions I will make to this basic design. The process and gesture of painting provided a welcome break from politics.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Images of sustainability

My desire to paint has been dormant for a couple of months, until I came up with another pretext to paint. The pretext was the prospect of family visiting during the month of November, and an old screen room divider that desperately needs to be turned into a lovely thing. So I have spent a day sanding and priming the divider, and am now faced with the prospect of 6 new blank surfaces, each measuring 17” x 63”, that need to be filled with living imagery.

This prospect is sending me back to favorite art books. The idea of two panels of 3 each suggests a narrative framework for the paintings. An internet search on the subject of Japanese screens led me to an exhibit done by the Asia Society of New York in 2004 on Japanese folding screens created from the mid-sixteenth century through the late seventeenth century. These screens were apparently created with themes depicting the social and cultural ideals of the time.

This is just a little exciting because I have been thinking about issues of sustainability, paying special attention to how we communicate about such topics as global warming, transportation sustainability, and food system sustainability. I have noticed how rare it is to hear or see anyone with a visionary perspective about the kind of sustainable society we would like to create. I am inclined to believe that people who could think in this way would be highly useful to all of us. Artists can try to create visions of a sustainable society, in the same way as the screen painters of 16th century Japan. Writers and community organizers, techies, inventors, teachers, homemakers and engineers can also describe and try to live out such visions.

I think we all need to engage in as much positive visionary thinking as we can. The planet is going to continue, regardless of how much destruction we humans wreak on it and one another. It seems likely to me that future generations will be living in a world that is hotter, drier, with less biodiversity and greatly reduced fisheries. We could rely a lot less on single occupancy vehicles. Central cities could become more viable and the expansion of automobile dependent suburbs could slow. As the cost of transporting finished goods increases, local and regional farming and manufacturing could regenerate.

The environmental doom and gloomers have their role. It would be great if elected officials and leaders would pay attention to their warnings. I think it is counter-productive for those of us who can see some positives in our future changed world to spend too much time listening to the pessimists. This is not to say the pessimists are incorrect in their assessments. I hope that some people will be inspired to great constructive action when they learn that the fisheries will be depleted by 2048.

For most of us, however, this news is disempowering. The street level activists in Minnesota and Oklahoma who want to do something about the oceans will be left depressed and wringing our hands at the future prospects. Those who are already tuning out the news will turn away more emphatically. Strategically, if we really want to change the world, we need to give much more voice to the positive visions. This gives the activists something concrete to do, it lures the disempowered back into engagement, it gets more of us creatively involved in the continued unfolding of our evolution.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Central themes in America's culture codes

I just finished reading “The Culture Code” by Clotaire Rapaille. Rapaille is a Frenchman who developed expertise in learning how ideas become imprinted in humans based on their cultural upbringing. He has shared his expertise with leading companies to help them market products around the world, based on the distinctive national “culture codes.”

A culture code is an idea-set that emotionally animates people when they are making crucial decisions. The most well-known American culture code is belief in the American dream. Anyone with something to sell to an American would do well to make sure that the message is “on-code”, that is, it resonates strongly with American idea-sets. This applies to everyone from political candidates, to automobile manufacturers, to community activists.

American culture codes present formidable challenges to anyone who might question the standard American way of doing things. Rapaille says that America is an adolescent culture, and exhibits this quality in many ways: “intense focus on the “now,” dramatic mood swings, a constant need for exploration and challenge to authority, a fascination with extremes, openness to change and reinvention, and a strong belief that mistakes warrant second chances.” As a young culture, we are prone to all the mistakes and enthusiasms of adolescents. We don’t ask our elders (other countries, for example) for advice. We are attracted to figures with adolescent qualities: Bill Clinton, for example, or Michael Jackson.

Our adolescent qualities as a nation can help and hinder us. Jungian psychologist James Hillman says America’s innocence is what gets us into trouble: “…that's our American addiction: the addiction to innocence. That's our only addiction. It's not drugs and it's not marijuana and so on. It's the addiction to not knowing. Not wanting to know.” He says America has an ability to plan, but the Iraq war, and the failure in New Orleans to respond to hurricane Katrina, reflect a failure of imagination: we couldn’t imagine what would happen if the plans didn’t work out.

Rapaille’s insights about American culture codes helps us understand verbal and pictorial frames that will resonate with Americans. His code-work provides information to advertisers and others who would like to shape our response to our experience in the marketplace of things and ideas.

Hillman is puzzling over the more difficult task: how do we rescue the American people from our own immaturity? These are useful questions to ponder as we look at a world of increased complexity. The next generation of global changes may call on us to link our youthful capacity for innovation with a more mature ability to envision and imagine the consequences of the actions we take.