Yesterday my husband and I attended an all day event entitled Rising from the Ashes: How Do We Create Peace from Chaos, Confusion, and Conflict. It was an un-conference sponsored by our local Jeannette Rankin Peace Center (JRPC). Designing it as an un-conference is a reference to something called Open Space. From their website:
Open Space Technology, or Open Space, is a meeting format discovered by Harrison Owen. There is much written about Open Space available in books and on the internet, and yet often the format defies description or explanation. It is much more easily experienced that written about.
The basic process of Open Space helps those participating in the event co-create an experience based on responsibility and passion. It is a very welcoming and very frequently fun process, and also one that can be challenging in the same way a good game is challenging. Open Space invites the participants to engage to a high degree.
Never having attended an Open Space setting before I could only imagine what to expect in terms of format and set-up. I was, like many others, a little nervous. The Five Principles of Open Space set me a little more at ease:
1. Whoever comes are the right people
2. Whenever it starts is the right time
3. Wherever it is, is the right place
4. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have, be prepared to be surprised!
5. When it’s over, it’s over
And the one law of Open Space is called the Law of Two Feet:
If at any time during our time together you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet, go someplace else.
In this way, all participants are given both the right and the responsibility to maximize their own learning and contribution, which the Law assumes only they, themselves, can ultimately judge and control. When participants lose interest and get bored in a breakout session, or accomplish and share all that they can, the charge is to move on, the “polite” thing to do is going off to do something else. In practical terms, Owen explains, the Law of Two Feet says: “Don’t waste time!”
It was one of our friends that brought the idea of Open Space to the JRPC and in his introduction of the format he explained that if at anytime during the conference we found that we were unhappy or discontent with how it was going it was because we didn’t bring whatever it was we thought was missing or lacking. The quality of the conference, as it were, was up to each one of us.
After the introductions we set to collectively creating the schedule for the day. Whoever wanted to offer a breakout session during the day could write down the title of their session and then tape their paper to the wall under a designated time accompanied with pre-set locations. For example, during our first session at 11:00am there were about 5 different topics being offered in different spots around the building. We then chose which one(s) to attend. And, in the spirit of the Law of Two Feet, we were encouraged to leave one session and go to another if we so chose, or attend none at all.
My husband Mike posted a session to host that he called: Equanimity, When Compassion is Too Much and Not Enough. After some friendly prompting and encouragement on his part I also decided to host a session that I called: The Art of Self-Care, Resting and Relaxation. When the time came for people to start posting their ideas on the schedule and announcing them to the group I was resigned to not hosting a session. Many thoughts came to my mind about sessions I could offer but I was reluctant to jump in. Eventually I embraced the same motivation that got me to the un-conference in the first place, which was in the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote,
“Do one thing everyday that scares you.”
It’s a fruitful practice that I’ve been cultivating more and more to delve into unknown waters that upon initial inspection carry not only disinterest but are flavored with aversion. The more I get into those waters the stronger my practice becomes and the more skill I generate in being at home in the present moment no matter where I go or who I’m with, which to me is at the heart of mindfulness practice and why I do what I do. It’s not an easy thing to do what scares us and it should be done with care and attention to our own needs and pace – and it’s also extremely valuable and important in the development and transformation of our own well-being. The more willing we are to encounter a variety of uncomfortable situations, and practice the art of connection both to ourselves and others, the happier and more joyful we become. I’ve come to understand that if I only spend time with people who’s character and ideas I thoroughly relate with and appreciate that I will lack much needed perspective, insight, and understanding.
While on some level an un-conference on the topic of creating peace seems in line with my own path I am inherently skeptical of the nature of activism and, in some cases, peace building. I have a lot of judgments that come up around the kinds of people that gravitate towards certain causes and matters of injustice – judgments that are, akin to all judgements, based in partial truths and my own mis-shapened lens of experience and mis-understanding. And I also deem my judgements to have a flavor of potential legitimacy as well. However well intentioned people may be when striving for change much damage has been done and anger and division generated in the name of activism and peace. When indignation arises in our mindsets our speech and actions can carry forth an unhealthy response and inflict malice and harm. This type of righteous, close-minded, us-verses-them activism fueled by hatred, which creates more separation, is what scares and repels me. So, I went to this un-conference to help dispel my own misgivings – to do something outside of my comfort zone in order to broaden my understanding and deepen my connection with others. I’ve found that most, if not all, experiences of strengthening, growth, and transformation happen outside of my safely constructed zone of comfort. Little can change when nothing changes. Every time I can get out of my own way and be truly present with others I am forever changed for the better.
This is a poem shared in the closing of the first session I attended, given by guest speaker Dr. Keiko Ozeki, Center for Ethical Leadership in Seattle:
In summary: Our respective journeys, as both unique individuals and a collective interdependent world community, continue just as they will and I am deeply grateful and honored to share this planet, in this day and age, with each and every inhabitant.