Minimum Specification #3: Simultaneously holding tension and intimacy
“Understanding is love’s other name.”—Thich Nhat Hahn
In the workshop room in Colombia, the tension is palpable. Actors from across the system are gathered to discuss how to rebuild the country together after the signing of the peace accord. We begin by inviting everyone to introduce themselves and to explain why they accepted the invitation to be here. We move on to “Cynics and Believers,” an activity in which participants role play a debate about ways these meetings could fail or succeed. Because the Indigenous leader, the representative from the multinational organization, and the former guerrilla all agree on how pessimistic they feel, they all laugh at the same time. Real laughter. Now a sense of relief is also palpable in the room.
Holding the Tension of Connecting and Feeling Hurt and Fear
Most religions teach that humans, in our essence, enjoy sharing kindness and connection with one another. To practice connecting during workshops, I have started to invite participants to have “Dinner With the Other.” The instruction is, “Have dinner with someone you never thought you would talk with or who you think of as your enemy. To start the conversation, take turns sharing a story about what you dreamed of being when you grew up.” The next day, people often recount having listened carefully to someone they never imagined being in the same room with and sharing stories of the ways the current situation is hurting them both.
However, the initial relief and euphoria of being seen, of opening without having to defend, is usually followed by disappointment. Participants learn or remember that this person they feel such connection with is also someone toward whom they feel anger, hurt, or fear. After the release of belly laughs and the sharing of a meal, people almost always return to the deep disagreements and hurts that led to these meetings in the first place. For this reason, I have come to believe that a minimum specification for transformative work is the capacity to connect with and be in deep disagreement with others at the same time. This ability is obviously easier to say than to actually do.
As a facilitator, I work from the belief that I cannot offer to others what I have not developed in myself. Thus, to learn how to simultaneously hold closeness and tension, I am experimenting with deep self-care. I find there is a correlation between how much I care for myself and how much space I have to open up to and fear another person at the same time, without needing to change the intensity or confusing nature of the experience. It is the same level of self-care I need when processing grief.
The more I care for myself, the better I am able to be with the intimacy and the tension that are inherent in undertaking transformative processes with others—the simultaneous joy and heartbreak, the closeness and the repulsion. Instead of trying to resolve the situation into the more familiar territory of “self” and “other” or “ally” and “enemy,” I slow down the pace, attend to my fatigue, overwhelm, or joy, and keep going until things become clearer.
When I’m leading a workshop and can’t take a break, my self-care includes intentionally breathing or feeling my feet on the ground. When I have more time, my self-care includes getting enough sleep, being in touch with my family, and enjoying my surroundings, such as what I see out the window and the food on my plate. I’ve also started asking colleagues and clients what kind of self-care works for them in professional settings. They tell me that it varies. It doesn’t seem to matter what we do,but that we do it.
When I attend to my own needs and let relationships unfold rather than try to force the situation, clarity eventually comes. In my experience, clarity always arrives, but often in a form I had not expected and usually after a long period of uncomfortable uncertainty. When I say “uncomfortable,” I do not mean I accept abuse or inappropriate behaviour; in those situations, I set firm boundaries. Self-care is for times when I am feeling hurt, angry, or scared and am still trying to see the wisdom behind an idea or behavior that I don’t like or understand.
In workshops, I have started to invite participants to care for and attend to themselves first. At Reos Partners, we have long started programs by saying that when participants can be present to each another and to what they are co-creating, they will be able to transform previously stuck situations. I am learning that a precursor to being present with the other is being present and loving to self. From there, we can learn to hold connection and fear together. We have the courage to be with and understand what is happening without trying to change it, which gives us the space we need to co-create solutions that can move beyond historical tropes of “enemy” and “ally”. We can begin to understand each other and the situation, which is the first step toward love.