on the softest breeze,
a dandelion fluff
floats directly to me,
skimming the surface of the lake.
from within the spokes,
a hand on a mast,
captaining her life.
we recognize each other,
sharing a moment of eye-contact,
before she sails away.
I am certain
is steering her fluff-boat,
and her own ingenuity,
to deliver her to the far shore.
we vagabonds know
on the far shore.
we captains know,
to reach the far shore,
we only need
a make-shift raft and
on a ripple.
Note: see the recording of the full panel on Facebook.
Come back to see my next post, where I share about my experience of writing and sharing this speech and the phenomena of individualization.
Reclaiming Gift Flow through Mutual Mothering in Community
Every one of us, no matter our culture or socioeconomic background, is alive today because someone took care of us when we were not capable of caring for ourselves.
In the womb, everything our forming body needs is given to us instantly, through our umbilical connection with our mother. Without even asking, without deserving or earning it, our needs are given to by Life.
At birth, we come into the world with the functional trust that our needs will be lovingly responded to. For our large brain to fit through our mother’s pelvis, our growth happens outside of the womb, so, unlike other mammals, human infants are not able to hold their heads up or walk. We are dependent on our caregivers. Why wouldn’t we, as infants, assume care? What else could life be, but nurturing, safe, and responsive, as it was in the womb? This is the essence of mattering: trusting that we will be given to without having to earn it or reciprocate.
The nonverbal communication that happens between caregiver and child is an example of gift-flow. We attune to facial expressions and flow gifts of smiles and mutual enjoyment. Even crying is collaborative. It’s an expression of trust in life, trusting that someone will respond. Without the infant’s expression of needs, the caregiver may not know how to respond. Without attuned responsiveness, we stop expressing our needs. Babies are born knowing how to do this, it’s wired into our brains as the foundation for our capacity for life-long collaboration.
In The Origin of Humanness in the Biology of Love, Gerda Verden-Zöller and Humberto Maturana suggest that our evolution into the human species is rooted in our physical dependence on mutual care. Adults’ needs, less immediately dependent on others, haven’t become any less urgent. Researchers have found chronic loneliness is as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Lonely people are 50% more likely to die prematurely.
At every stage of life, we depend on gifts flowing to our needs, on mutual giving and receiving, on trust in each other and in Life itself.
Every day, whether we acknowledge it or not, we practice the functional trust that our needs will be responded to by Life. We fill our lungs with air that was produced millions of years ago. It is one of the few gifts from Nature not yet commodified. We paid no money for it. No one earns the right to breathe. Air is not withheld from us when we mess up or offered as a reward for good behavior. Air is given to us because we exist on this planet. With every inhale, we functionally trust Life to give to us the air we need to continue living.
And yet by the time we are adults, most of us, in most of the world, don’t experience trust in Life. What happens to us, individually, that leads us to lose this trust we were born with? What happened to us, collectively and over the generations, to bring us to such massive loss of trust in Life that we are now destroying it?
For 97% of our existence as humans, evolving over a few million years, our ancestors retained their trust in Life and in each other into adulthood. Whole societies were built on a foundation of trust that there is enough for everyone, that life will give us what we need and that we will take care of each other.
In The Chalice and The Blade, Riane Eisler presents compelling archeological evidence that the societies that existed in Neolithic Europe were based on this maternal egalitarian principle. About 7,000 years ago, around Mesopotamia and the Eurasian Steppes, multiple groups simultaneously shifted from trust to trying to control the flow of resources. We don't definitively know what happened, but there is some evidence that the Black Sea, previously a lake, rapidly became connected to the Mediterranean. The resulting flooding was immense, possibly the source for Biblical stories. The trauma from this natural disaster was more than could be collectively processed and may have caused their initial loss of trust in Life.
As documented by Marija Gimbutas, these groups turned to war and invasions to control life. These invasions likely became the initial “loss-of-trust-trauma” for the attacked groups and they, in turn, repeated the shift to attempted control. This cycle continued and intensified through the establishment of empires, followed by capitalism, which relied on multiple, intersecting forms of oppression to be established and self-perpetuate.
To turn a free person into a slave, they must be removed from their community and from the land, as David Graeber showed in Debt: The First 5000 Years. When we are connected to community and to land, we revolt. We do what we can to take care of our loved ones, even in the face of violence. In order to establish and maintain control, we must be removed from community with the Natural world, from human communities, and from the community of ourselves.
To separate us from the community of the Natural world, we have experienced scorched-Earth war techniques, we have been traumatized by the enclosure of the commons, and we have been forced to convert from Earth-based, indigenous spirituality. To sell us materials freely given by the Earth, we must believe manufactured scarcity and that the Earth is lifeless.
To separate us from our homes, communities, and cultures, we have been stolen from Africa, trafficked across oceans, forced to attend boarding schools, forbidden to use our native languages or practices, exposed to violence against children and mothers, and more.
To separate us from the community of ourselves, those parts of ourselves below the neck, we have been cut off from our feelings and trained to ignore our needs. This enables us to either comply with oppression or to be able to oppress others without experiencing the very real agony of harming another person.
In Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici shows how colonizers celebrated finally convincing the indigenous in North America to hit their children for the first time, while at the same time, women were being burnt at the stake in Europe. Federici’s research suggests that, rather than religious persecution, accusations of witchcraft were used to slander female leaders of anti-capitalist communities, who actively opposed the establishment of capitalism. Calling a woman a witch is still used to undermine her leadership today. Murdering women for “cavorting with the devil in the woods” successfully removed the leader of the opposition while simultaneously discrediting community gatherings in public places.
To continue reproducing capitalism, community living remains the “devil” to scare us away from. By removing us from our communities, we are reduced from a “we” to “an individual', reduced to workers and consumers.
Even now, we are removed from community, through frequent moving, divisive politics and rhetoric, and disconnection from our ancestors. Community living is seen as a “hippy thing” or even a “cult”, to be avoided. When we are directly meeting each other's needs, we can revive the commons and subsistence economy, which then means there won’t be enough workers and enough consumers to keep the market economy going, and the system will crash.
As Federici explains, capitalism was established through the destruction of community living in Europe and elsewhere, made possible by enclosure of the commons, colonization, the slave trade, and the murder of women accused of witchcraft, all designed to increase the pool of cheap labor and access to raw materials, and to put down resistance. The work of community building is key to the work of reversing capitalism, it is the work of liberation. Liberation, as defined by Erica Sherover-Marcuse, is both undoing the effects of oppression and eliminating its causes. Community living accomplishes both.
For guidance, we can turn to Gandhi’s “constructive program”, where they built an alternative to what they wanted to change, in addition to nonviolent resistance. It required 2 components: the alternative must meet a real need and it must be possible for anyone to do it. Community living meets both.
We urgently need contexts where people can become childlike again, with authentic expression of their needs and the capacity to receive unconditionally. Where, because we trust so wholeheartedly that our needs matter, we have no hesitation to give unconditionally to others’ needs. We need communities building concrete social structures that draw out our innate mutual-mothering, that foster and reclaim need-based flow of resources.
Anyone can begin practicing giving without receiving and receiving without earning or reflexively giving back. Anyone can build community, starting now, where we are, with those we live and work with. We can find more direct ways to meet our needs, moving from buying our food at the store, to buying directly from a farmer, to growing food with others for our community. We can recreate the commons where we are, take down our fences and build cooperatives. We can join what's already happening in our area, or invite our closest friends to live with us and co-parent our children with support beyond what's available in the romantic partnership.
Across the world, people are already forming communities. Governments of the world can help us by making it logistically and legally easier for intentional, live-in communities of all sizes and locations to form and co-exist. Governments could create legal structures making it possible for groups to share commonly-held resources, offering women an alternative to marriage. Undoing the barriers to community living could be a form of reparations for the atrocities committed during the establishment of capitalism.
Community living based on the resurgence of the maternal gift economy is inevitable, a necessary path to avert human extinction. It’s people who have become again a “we” who will find the inner resources to face the huge task of responding to the crisis of our time.
Note: see my next post, where I share about my experience of writing and sharing this speech, and the phenomena of an interdependent process being individualized.
My dream for more than 15 years has been to live in community in right relationship with land. Instead, I traveled a bit and got married. This dream never went away, I have just spent many years aching.
I decide to learn (and teach) NVC because I didn't know how to get from where I was (married and living in an apartment in a city) to where I wanted to be. At least I could upskill and be ready to jump when the opportunity presented itself to me. When the pandemic started 2 years ago I turned my surprise and fear inward, harshly demanding why I hadn't made the community I longed for yet. Why I wasn't growing my own food like I had wanted to for so long? (I'll skip the rest of the self judgements.) I felt renewed commitment and urgency to reorient my life and work towards community living. Then, unexpectedly, my spouse chose to exit our relationship and I spiraled into deep mourning and life transformation.
The gift of the loss of my marriage is I now have no reason not to create this dream of living in community.
I don't want to live in just any community. I want to live with people who are as committed to living nonviolence as I am, or even more than I am, so they can help me when I am lost or stuck. I want to live with people who give openly from the heart like I do, who want to receive my gifts, who want to live in the flow of love and life with me. I want to live with people who will recreate the commons with me, who want to find radical structures for relationship and collaboration that help us to somehow step out of patriachy and into a new/old/human way of life. I want people who dont need me to explain my vision because their vision is so align we dig into the work together.
Not a small thing to ask for.
In the past year or so I had the joy to live in three small communities. I learned alot and also had so much support as I mourned and struggled to re-find myself. Connecting with myself over the past few months has brought me to a more centered place and a more clear sense of what I want (instead of prioritizing what other people want).
What I want is to take the seed of this community dream, that has been laying dormant in my own heart for so long, and to plant it into the material plane, with trust in life itself to support me.
I'm so delighted to already be joined in cocreating this dream. There are now two birdies on the Vibrantly Alive banner. One for me and one for Shua. We will add another birdie for everyone who joins us in our community as it grows. The two of us are drafting a clear vision and purpose etc for our community and we plan to begin inviting people we know to consider joining us. I'm dreaming about where in the world we will plant the seed of our community to grow.
We are taking this journey step by step and I plan to share it with you here.
I spend almost every day doing some form of group collaboration. Working in groups is a vital practice for living in community that I can do now, where I am, even without finding the perfect place to live or the perfect community living situation. I like it because it is a shift away from individualism towards interdependence. I get a lot of opportunities to practice NVC and I noticed my growth rate is exponential compared to when I was working more on my own as a solopreneur.
I’d like to explore something that I noticed while working in a group.
Have you ever been in a group where it's like you're saying one thing and they’re hearing another thing? Or a question is asked and you think you've already responded to it? There's some confusion and some pressure to speak better, deliver something that's been asked of you. There’s a sense of misalignment, of not quite being on the same page. And if you're not careful, and even if you are careful, it's easy to fall into disconnection and even despair. The thoughts connected with this despair could look something like:
Some of the impacts of this pattern that I've observed in myself and in others are rising tension and defensiveness. I have also seen someone else who wasn't speaking but was impacted by what was being said shrinking, visibly shrinking, appearing smaller, retreating into themselves. Other impacts are checking out, this might be called the freeze trauma response. Those are impacts at the individual level.
Impacts on the group level could be loss of trust, loss of willingness to collaborate or even loss of willingness to participate at all. If this happened often enough it could result in exiting the group or even exiting the community as a whole. Ultimately, this could result in giving up on the entire experiment in non-violence or collaborative work or community living entirely and sinking back into patriarchal norms.
I had one of these experiences last night. I lay in bed before sleep replaying what happened over and over and over and thinking of how to respond to this or to prevent it from happening. So, I’m writing about this to you today, so we can digest it a bit together. I want to share a little bit about what came to me.
“I want you to meet us where we are,” someone said in yesterday's meeting. To give a little context, I’ll summarise by saying that we were receiving requests and commentary on what I might call “Phase D” of the project and I was presenting information about where we are in the project, which could be called “Phase A”.
“I want you to meet us where we are” reminds me of what my teacher said about empathy. We were talking about listening with empathy, in this case with an individual as they express what's on their mind. My teacher calls this “entering into the jungle of their heart”. I really like this metaphor because it shows one of the core principles of listening to someone with empathy. To respond to someone empathically, I need willingness to pause expressing my world and enter into their world.
We were practicing this with a specific individual. I have an idea that there might be a bit more flow in listening with empathy to someone when they're right in front of you, when you're seeing the expressions of pain or joy. Some part of us moves into their world a little bit: we enter a space of togetherness. I'm witnessing what's going on for them, what's important to them, what they're expressing. This empathic listening is part of being human. I believe it is a universal human need to both give and receive this empathic presence, this empathic receiving. It is a skill we can improve, that we can grow a practice of, that we can apply as an orientation to how we want to respond to people choicefully.
Empathic receiving is a natural tendency that we see in babies responding to facial expressions on the adults around them. Due to living under authoritarian social structures, at some point that natural flow is lost. So we practice it; we reclaim it.
Because that natural flow is lost, even when I may have a heartfelt desire to receive someone with empathy, to enter into their world, and to be present for what is real for them (even if I don't believe it myself or if I don't resonate with it) I might not still actually manage to do it. I might still respond with judgement or defensiveness or distance. Or I might respond with what’s alive in me before they're ready to hear it, before they feel fully heard. And this happens, even with practice, even with a commitment to receiving others with empathy. It happens. I may be full of regret, there may be a cost, cost to the relationship, to the shared work, to the community.
When we scale up from one on one interactions to group interactions, there's a lot more complexity to receive. Every person in that group wants to be received empathically. Every person in the group wants to be met where they are. Again because to be received with empathy is a human need that we all have. This is not always achievable due to the fluctuation in individual capacity and group capacity. Influences on capacity might be time, might be orientation towards achieving a specific purpose, might be unexpressed conflict in the room, it could just be something as simple as tiredness, or habits, or lack of facilitation.
I learned to carry empathic receiving into a group when I was bringing nvc into a school setting to work with teens and their teachers. I stepped into their world, reflected their language, while simultaneously welcoming them into my world. I had to stay on my toes, keeping a foot in both worlds, grounded in myself and what was important to me, bringing it with me while empathically entering into their world, respectfully seeing them as whole, that their worldview and desires matter, landing into trust in our shared humanness.
And, this is in addition to my relationship with the teachers and staff. All of what I just described I also did with the staff when I met with them. To add more complexity, I became a bridge between the teens and the staff, supporting them in hearing each other. I basically grew a third foot, one foot in my world and what change I hoped to inspire in the school, one foot in the staff's world, hearing and caring about the things that were important to them (ie the student’s physical safety and getting more opportunities in life) and one foot with the youth, responding to what was important to them (their mattering). And somehow, to try to support both the staff and the youth in practicing this dual listening (one foot in myself and one foot in the other’s world). And to do it in a group setting. Once a week we sat in circle together, sharing and listening and reflecting.
I want to come back to the original context, the meeting that I had yesterday. My dream would be at even a brief one hour meeting that participants, organisers, facilitators, guests, and team members would come into the meeting with this orientation of emphatically receiving the others with one foot in my own world.
I want to see more skillfulness in myself and in those that I work with. I want to see more capacity to hear what people are saying, to pause my own expression, to pause my own requests and to be more likely to enter into the world of the people that I'm working with. Depending on the number of meetings that you have that might seem like a tall order, and I dare to dream of it. If we lived in a world with less patriarchal wounding this would maybe be a more doable request. If we worked or lived in a community of people applying this practice it may be a more doable request.
So let's look at some applicable strategies that we might bring into meetings or collaborative group work that may support us in walking towards this dream.
Before the meeting or collaboration: