Table of Contents
7. Collectivity and relating personally
To start by summarising what I've tried to spell out so far …
In general, in work, social life, everywhere, I would like to have relationships where I can be honest and true to myself; where there is enough closeness and trust to form part of a body that is greater than any individual; where I can help others, and others help me, to find our personal and collective ikigai; and at a higher level, where the relationships I have are trustworthy enough to help guide me into more relationship, working even more towards mutual fulfillment. Maybe others in the collective nudge me towards changes that it would be good for me to make in myself. Maybe I do that for others. In neither case will it be a rational, deterministic process, but a listening to what is in the field, and speaking from the heart whatever is there – probably not direct advice; more likely well-timed questions.
One aspect of this that I haven't yet said much about revolves around speaking about others in their absence. I've seen it suggested that it's generally a bad thing to do. I can understand that it may well be bad, depending on the spirit behind the talking, and the trust of the collective. Too often, people experience others ‘talking behind their back’ as gossip, telling tales, undermining people's reputation, telling compromising secrets, etc. This clearly undermines trust, and makes people more suspicious, contributing to wanting to set a norm that it is dangerous (and therefore wrong) to speak about someone in their absence. But it doesn't need to be that way.
Sometimes I've wanted to talk over how I react to another person's behaviour. If I take it up directly with the person I reacted to, there are many things that could go wrong, and get in the way of constructive dialogue. But if I check first, with other people in a shared collective, I have a much better chance of working out whether I'm the only person to react in this way – in which case that's clearly something for me to consider – or whether it is a common response, in which case the challenge may be elsewhere. If I am the only person to react in this way, it could save an amount of awkwardness around bringing the issue up with the person I reacted to. And if I'm not the only person, then any conversations around this could contribute to a collective sensing of what is going on, and a collective response, where the wisdom of the collective is almost invariably finer than the wisdom of any individual – particularly from an individual who has been ‘triggered’ by something someone else said or did.
This appears to me more likely to be an issue in intimate personal relationships than in, say, work relationships. Work relationships can certainly bring up authority issues – perhaps linking back to trauma with our parents as our original authority models. But there is more likely to be a prescribed way of raising any issues of upset at work. Personal relationships, including ‘romantic’ ones, in contrast usually have no formal channels to bring up issues through. And it makes no sense to me to consider intimate, ‘romantic’ and sexual relationships as in a completely different category from other ones.
Let me jump straight into what I think I would appreciate, as it's much easier than guessing what others might appreciate, relating to personal relationships.
- When I am upset (restimulated, triggered, etc.) by something that someone else says or does, I would like to be able to talk it over with at least one person, and preferably more, who know me and the other person well enough to have some insight in to what might be going on.
- When I say or do something that upsets someone else, I really welcome others trying to let me know about it. And if they are not sure how to do this, I would welcome them talking with others, ‘behind my back’, in a loving, caring way, to pool their knowledge about me and how best to approach me – what works for me.
- I would like there to be enough collective closeness and openness to be able to sense into the kind of collective wisdom about relationships, that perhaps no individual reliably has.
- I would like to be able to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of each of my relationships (of whatever nature) within the collective, in order to work through difficulties and obstacles and come into greater connection and co-creation.
- And the same the other way round – I can be part of the collective insight process. I don't see how it could be practical to restrict this to conversations held in a circle with everyone. Yes, probably best to have an inclusive circle as an integral, vital part, but surely not the only part.
I can't be alone in wanting all kinds of relationships to have a loving and caring quality, rather than people just looking out for their own interests. (Though, disciples of Ayn Rand may disagree.) The point about situating relationships in a collective is, most obviously, that the collective wisdom and intelligence can be applied to supporting the loving and caring quality of all the relationships. For sure, one can be loving and caring about other people's relationships outside any collective context, but without that network of intimacy, without those emergent insights, the depth of that love and care is likely to be less than could be there within a loving, caring collective.
It may be useful here to reflect on the ideal image of a wise, loving, caring parent. If you had a good parent, think of them; if not, think of how you would have liked them to be. If you are a parent, think about how you would like to be, or have been, the best parent you could be. If I imagine that now, I see the ideal parent as one who has known you since you were born; has seen your development; has taken account of your developing and changing individual personality; has seen your strengths and encouraged them; has understood your weaknesses and where they come from, and offered support for overcoming those weaknesses. That parent may have helped you find your personal ikigai, and given you the resources to achieve that. That parent may have demonstrated by example how to have good, healthy relationships; but in any case would help you to find them yourself. Of course, it is rare indeed to find parents who fulfill this ideal. Nor can a partner in an equal relationship deliver on all that you have missed from not having ideal parents. And maybe a collective can't offer the fullness of this either. But I am sure that a collective can, potentially, get closer to that ideal parent than any one other individual.
Many sites of relationship wisdom will say that a good relationship is one that brings out the best in you. But what to do, if your current most intimate relationship is not bringing out the best in you, or in them? Conventional wisdom might say, there is an irreconcilable incompatibility there, time to move on. Leave that relationship and start afresh with a clearer sense of what your needs are, and a clearer sense of being able to meet the core needs of the other.
In the context of a loving and caring collective, this might become clearer. Is it a real incompatibility? Or is it just a learning point for one or the other partner? Perhaps a collective, like a very wise and present parent, could know, better than any one individual, whether a good relationship could be salvaged or not. Maybe the collective, sensing that the problems are just temporary, could offer the partners the support needed to work through those difficulties into an even more mature and fruitful relationship.
Or, maybe it becomes clear to the collective that some other pairings would be more fruitful. That would seem to me to be the ideal way to move on with a minimum of guilt or regret, knowing that both people's interests are genuinely being cared for by the collective (including oneself!)
But let me now jump into the most controversial situation, as I sense it needs to be explored. In a close-knit collective, I would guess it would already be clear that there is no expectation that one person can meet all of another's needs and desires. So, obviously, without question, each person will have a unique relationship with each other person, and each relationship will have its own beauty. The big issue, for normal morality, is, what if some of those ‘needs’ involve sexuality or intimacy bordering on sexuality? Let me say straight away that I don't have a clear answer to this, and I think I would have answered differently at different times in my life. So let me look at the different answers.
First, the traditional answer might be that sexuality only actually works within monogamous committed relationships, whether or not they are permanent. So the role for collective wisdom would be to pair people up in an optimal, kind of ‘utilitarian’ way, where the most needs are met for the most people. Collective members would then try to sublimate other apparently sexual needs, directing them into other channels.
Second, the explicitly polyamorous answer might be that, naturally, many people have intimacy and sexual needs that can't be met by one person alone, and therefore it is to be expected and welcomed that different people in the collective can relate to one person at any level of intimacy that leads to positive results. The challenge is then to discern what results are positive – greater satisfaction along with deepening trust, perhaps? And, perhaps, one overriding consideration is that if it is a collective that is helping this process along in a spirit of openness and honesty, as well as love and care, then the health of the collective itself is of vital importance. So it is not only the effect of behaviour on the individuals, but the effect of different behaviour patterns on the collective as whole that matters. Does the collective thrive on patterns of fluid intimacy, or not? Does that affect the way it can function in the wider world?
Third, I'm coming to a deeper possible answer, that is still less clear. From a psychological perspective it is no surprise that what every person feels as a need is itself dependent on their personal history, including trauma, including adverse childhood experiences, and even including adult experience. But what are our real needs, as opposed to what we imagine as our needs? What are the conditions that will bring out the best in us? I honestly don't think that many people are in a good position to answer that for themselves. Sometimes it seems that people put a lot of energy into protecting themselves from recognising their true needs, if that may involve disruptive changes, or challenging our self-image or identity. So, maybe, ideally, the collective can start without any assumptions, without any preconceived norms (as there would be in a 3rd order traditionalist collective) and enquire into what actually brings out the best in each member? What helps each member to thrive more, to be more loving, more whole, more healthy? And what, at the same time, helps the collective itself play that role ever better, recognising the likely possibility that what is best might be different for each one of us, and different at different times?
In that case, there is no definitive answer. Which is nice, I would say. I don't have an answer. There is no universal answer. Despite the obvious dangers of collectivism done badly, I would say that there is nowhere to go, other than collective intelligence, collective wisdom, to fit an answer to any particular personal situation.
I can't emphasise enough that many collectives, many groups of people, many families even, are very far from the ideal of a loving, caring collective. Collectives can be oppressive and restrictive; they can be highly normative and enforce conformity; they can stifle individuality and freedom of expression. Let's acknowledge that, and turn the question round. Do you believe in the possibility of a collective that is more like what I have implied above? And if it is possible, isn't it worth a great deal of effort to find them, or create them, where they are not yet present?
Linking through to other places and greater wholes
The first place I would like to link to is Collective Presencing itself. The subtitle of Ria's book is “What becomes possible when we are truly present together”, and to me that points towards a vision of the potential of the collective, providing that collective is “truly present together”.
Then there is the adult development theory of Robert Kegan, ably set out by David Chapman. His recent essay, A fully meta-rational workplace is based on Kegan's developmental theory. My vision of a living collective in which one has relationships has similarities to David's view of a meta-rational workplace.
However, I don't think that to make such a collective work, we all need to have what Kegan calls fifth-order consciousness. What matters more, in my view, is that everyone understands that they are on a developmental journey, while grasping just what they need to grasp in their current position. And stress can be a stimulus for change, like, often, “the gift is in the trauma”. In this way, I do not see a collective as an elitist (or gnostic) organisation, but one consisting of ordinary people, with enough insight and practice to make the collective work as a “deliberately developmental organisation”, to use another phrase from Kegan.
In my reading, the early church, as described in the Acts of the Apostles, was such a collective. The writings tell us about sharing values as well as things – “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.” For sure, imitations of this have gone terribly wrong, with people being indoctrinated, and pressured to share their money. To me, that is simply another manifestation of the fact that collectives can be turned to negative practices as well as positive ones.
To me, all these point to the need for a ‘critical mass’ of people with good intention and good practice to gather together; to be present together. Just as in a nuclear reactor, the reaction can fail either because there are not enough people, or because they are not close enough. Or for a more topical analogy, for a meme to go viral, just as with a biological virus, there have to be enough people who get it in the first place, and sufficient density to the connections between people to pass it on with R > 1.
Thus, I see two directions proceeding hand in hand. One is to bring together people with value similar enough that they are likely to be able to form the kind of collective I've envisaged; and the other is to develop and practice the kind of practices which constitute the active connections. As I've suggested before, the first could be done, slowly, by people's unaided networking around spaces such as the Stoa. I see a much quicker and more effective process being something more like my system for CHOICE. For the second, I see Collective Presencing and all its offshoots as pointing the way.
Maybe that is the end of what I needed to say about all this, for the time being. I want to practice more and live more, not just think and write!