Creating Connection in Conscious Community: Healing Our Cultural Disconnect

Author // Lisa Reagan

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Creating Connection in Conscious Community: Healing Our Cultural Disconnect
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The seasonal transition month of September 2012 found me and Pathways traveling from the Art of Community conference in the pine forests of Charlottesville, Virginia, to its sister conference among the redwoods in Occidental, California. My bi-coastal research on creating community was rewarded with insights from pioneers and veterans of the intentional living, ecovillage and cohousing community movements, and the discovery of an ingenious, newly developed tool/toy for quickly connecting in groups that I am happy to share with you here. But first, why do we intentionally create conscious living communities, whether through Pathways Connect Gathering Groups or more permanent ecovillages? For Pathways Connect, our purpose as Cultural Creatives is to actively participate in the Global Wellness Shift by establishing safe and welcoming circles where we can be our authentic selves and bring our deepest parenting concerns. By acknowledging one another in these intimate settings, we also counter the scientifically acknowledged social phenomenon of feeling/being invisible in a dominant culture that does not reflect back to us our holistic values.

To say that the importance of gathering and supporting one another as Cultural Creatives may be the key to tipping human civilization towards sustainability may sound too fantastic to be true, but according to some of the best scientists and thinkers of our time, it might just be that simple. As Paul Ray, Ph.D., shared with me in an interview this year, “It is the necessary mission of Cultural Creatives to bring forth their practical wisdom into the failing mainstream and unsustainable industrial worldview.” Ray is the co-author of Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing the World.

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Ervin Laszlo, Ph.D., agrees. “The evolution of the values and the ethics of people in all walks of life and parts of the world is the best and most reliable avenue toward the creation of a more peaceful and sustainable world. This evolution is occurring already, but it is not widely recognized,” writes Laszlo in his book, Quantum Shift in the Global Brain: How the New Scientific Reality Can Change Us and Our World. Laszlo is the recipient of the Peace Prize of Japan, the Goi Award (Tokyo, 2002), the International Mandir of Peace Prize (Assisi, 2005), and has been nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize (in 2004 and 2005).

In an endorsement of Pathways’ nonprofit vision this fall, Laszlo wrote, “Wellness is the key to a peaceful and sustainable world. And wellness on the level of the family is the way to achieve it. Pathways to Family Wellness and Pathways Connect are precious guides for achieving this paramount objective.”

In addition to making visible the practical wisdom of our holistic values in an unsustainable culture, when we gather with the purpose of forming a conscious living community, we are also redressing the historically recent trend of believing and then living as if we are disconnected from one another and the Earth. “We humans evolved in small hunter-gatherer bands,” writes Richard Heinberg in his foreword to Diane Leafe Christian’s Finding Community. “Thus roughly 99 percent of our history as a species has been spent in groups of 15 to 50 individuals where each knew all the others, and where resources were shared in a ‘gift economy.’ Even in recent centuries, the vast majority of people lived in villages or small towns. Little in our evolutionary past has prepared us for anonymous life in mass urban centres, suburbs and exurbs.”

While we were not biologically or spiritually designed to live in a disconnected world, little prepares us now for the task of creating sustainable models for living, whether the issue is healthcare, attachment parenting, compulsory education models, or sustainable food systems. Consciously creating connection, building a support system and sharing our lives with like-minded souls is the thread that runs through all forms of intentional communities, whether group members are meeting once a week around the common purpose of family wellness or daily around a communal kitchen.

It is interesting to consider that, while people have lived simply in communities close to nature for millennia, this historical fact and re-emerging model of sustainable living is considered fringe by defenders of the industrial, urbanized mainstream. Andrew Jacobs of The New York Times has written that, contrary to popular misconceptions, “most communes of the ’90s are not free-love refuges for flower children, but well-ordered, financially solvent cooperatives where pragmatics, not psychedelics, rule the day.” This was my observation at the Art of Communities conferences as well.

While a few intentional communities survived their birth as communes in the 1960s, like Ina May and Stephen Gaskin’s community known as The Farm in Summerville, Tennessee, the exact number of intentional communities in North America is guessed to be around 12,000. Whatever their true numbers, the growing popularity of intentional living communities is evident by the long wait list of the 45-year-old Twin Oaks community, the hosts of the Art of Community conference in Virginia.

Intentional communities, ecovillages and cohousing movements are inspired avenues for Cultural Creatives to experimentally work toward living sustainably and in like-minded community. Because all of these movements are responses to a growing need for sustainability and connection in an unsustainable and disconnected world, all of them explore why community building is so difficult in our culture, and have developed insights and tested tools for making the process easier.

While most of us will not be moving in together or building a yurt village, thousands of families are actively seeking like-minded souls to share the joy of our brief time as parents together through Pathways Connect Gathering Groups. As Ina May Gaskin wisely quipped to me in our Pathways interview last year, “You are trying to have The Farm without The Farm!” [You can hear the entire 90-minute audio recording on the Pathways website.]

She’s right. We are seeking the treasures of genuine connection and community of The Farm, and other intentional communities, in our Pathways Connect Gathering Groups. To help us achieve our lofty and necessary goals, what if a large collaborative group of experts on creating community took a few years to amass their wisdom and then shared all they knew in an easily accessible, open-source tool like a deck of cards or a mobile app? What if you could download these cards and have guidelines for games and activities with them online? For free?

When I saw Group Works’ beautifully illustrated and boxed set of large cards at the Art of Community conference in Occidental, California, I knew instantly this was the reason I’d hazarded winding mountain roads and crossed a narrow salmon creek bridge. While Occidental is renowned for its high concentration of visionaries and famous artists, and was the hub of community-centered social movements in the late 1960s and early ’70s, I hadn’t expected to find such a potent and brilliant tool so easily!

Published in 2011, the Group Works cards were created by more than 50 volunteers from diverse organizational backgrounds who collaborated over three years to express the core wisdom at the heart of successful group sessions. The cards are accompanied by a five-panel explanatory legend card and a booklet describing the deck’s purpose, its story, and ideas for suggested activities and practical ways to use the cards as individual facilitators or in a group setting.

“The Group Works Deck and the underlying pattern language comes from the work of many different facilitators across many different disciplines and types of groups,” says Raines Cohen, a cohousing coach with Cohousing California, who worked on the development team. “We saw the same types of issues and the same powerful elements of solutions and looked for the essential common essence that we could effectively express with an image and text that inspires.”

As we say in our Pathways Connect Dialogue and Resource Guide, how we talk about the often-hot topics of conscious family living and parenting (the process) is more important than what we are talking about (the content). While we also use non-violent communication tools in our groups to express individual feelings and needs, Group Works cards speak to a greater level of awareness of group dynamics, and allow playfulness and deep connection to happen more quickly in intentional meeting spaces.

If you are a Pathways Connect member, check your e-newsletters for upcoming teleconferences exploring the Group Works decks together. You can also connect with me in our weekly Pathways Connect support calls.

While my full report on the Art of Community conferences will appear in the summer 2013 issue of Pathways, the golden nuggets found in the Group Works card deck are too yummy to not share immediately, and are sampled below. Enjoy discovering the treasures of connection in your Pathways Connect Gathering Group by finding or starting your local group here:

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Sample Cards in the Group Works Deck

Witnessing with Compassion. Grounded in your heart, offer gentle observations free of judgment. With kindness and presence, place attention on what you notice happening, rather than your reaction to it.

Unity and Diversity. Hold simultaneous awareness of both what is shared in common and what is unique. Sometimes it is more important to honor the distinctions and hear the differences; other times it is crucial to focus on similarities and common territory. Both are needed.

Seeing the Forest, Seeing the Trees. Shepherding a group discussion includes discerning when the group needs a wider view vs. when to sink down into the details. Zoom out to see vision, patterns, and overall trends; zoom in for examples, specific data and other particulars.

Inquiry. Choose to cultivate a curious attitude. Great questions frame and provoke, opening us to new pathways. Many successful methods have questions at their core, such as: “What’s at the heart of the matter?” and “If you were czar, what would you do?” So what’s the most powerful question we could ask right now?

Story. Stories, metaphors and myths convey complex ideas, context, meaning and nuance that simple data cannot. By telling personal stories we build trust and connection, encourage imagination and express the essence of who we are. By telling cultural stories we connect ourselves to others’ experience and interact with the whole system.

Self-Awareness. The more you know who you and your group really are, the more effectively you can engage,make choices that are the right fit, and achieve your goals. Discover your values, feelings, dreams, needs, biases, and more. Embrace Dissonance and Difference. Encourage your group to honor contradictory viewpoints, sitting with the uncertainty and ambiguity this brings. Acknowledge all perspectives as equally valid and explore them as fully as needed, especially when tensions are high and agreement seems far away.

Magic. At certain moments, something beyond the group emerges, accompanied by a sense of awe…and resulting in a unanimous feeling of astonished accomplishment. Conditions inviting magic include shared passion, urgency, openness, energy and trust—yet the quality is always mysterious, never guaranteed.

Challenge. Challenging something—accepted wisdom, ideas, information, practices or ways of looking at things—provokes learning and new thinking, surmounts complacency and blind spots, and engenders creativity. It also invites us to reexamine our uncritical acceptance of convention and the status quo.

An intentional community is a group of people who have chosen to live or work together in pursuit of a common goal or vision.

Ecovillages are sustainable communities and neighborhoods, urban and rural, committed to living in an ecologically, economically, culturally and spiritually sound way. The physical and living arrangements vary widely, from loosely strung networks to much more cooperative or communal agreements.

In a cohousing neighborhood, each family or individual owns their own private home, but some facilities and resources are shared. Shared spaces often include a gathering or dining area, a playground or playroom, daycare, vegetable garden, office equipment, workshop, etc.

Why I facilitate a Pathways Connect Gathering Group By Nicole Schwartz, M.S.W.

I began my journey serving members of the community as a social worker with a specialty in trauma. I worked at the Liberty Center for Survivors of Torture, and was the coordinator for the Pennsylvania Refugee Mental Health Network. I worked with the most resilient people I have ever had the privilege to serve.

Many of the families that I served came from countries where the nearest medical facility was a day’s walk away, and the communities they lived in lacked regular access to nourishing foods. The women birthed with the love, encouragement and support of other women. Aunts, sisters, mothers, friends and neighbors supported a laboring woman through her birth experience and throughout her parenting journey. Most birthed several children vaginally without the technology that we have ready access to in the United States.

After being resettled in the U.S., a sense of safety returned to their lives, and many of these women were blessed by the return of their cycle and fertility. They became pregnant and rejoiced in the chance to birth a baby in the U.S. Many, however, were provided the standard care in a local teaching hospital, and their birth became a point of retraumatization. Without the care and support of providers that viewed the mother in a holistic framework, made up of physical, emotional, social and energetic needs, these mothers were often subjected to intervention that was not appropriate for their level of risk.

With a personal passion for anthroposophic and holistic health, I knew that there had to be a better way. In a country as privileged and developed as the United States, there had to be a better, safer, more nourishing way to birth our future. There had to be a way to match women up with a provider who was expert in serving her based on a level of risk.

As I looked for one, I found the Midwives Model of Care, and my journey took a direction that I hadn’t foreseen. I attended midwifery school and became an expert in serving low-risk women who choose to birth at home. Today, I am a midwife. I still serve women and their families. I still, unfortunately, serve survivors of various types of trauma. But today, I am a sister who supports the women in my community through their childbearing year. I am hosting a Pathways Connect gathering in order to facilitate the organic growth of a support network for the women in my community—a network of women who can love, support and encourage our sisters, and one in which we share information with families on their wellness journeys, on their pathways to health.

The Importance of Pathways Gathering Groups: A Testimonial

Having a turnkey community group is great, because it is inclusive of everyone. Pathways is able to be a broad enough umbrella to take everyone in, instead of being a niche group.

Because of the networking of our local holistic practitioners and the parents working to create a local wellness community, Pathways Connect provided a hub for the energies to organize around. The Southwest Florida group is organizing a Green Expo for April 2013, featuring Ina May Gaskin and her new documentary, Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin and the Farm Midwives. (Details are available at

Pathways Connect helps to give us a platform to talk about the paradigm of vitalism and innate intelligence. I have looked for 15 years for any other publication to help parents understand this concept, which is why Pathways is so valuable.

You have done all the hard work for us. As small business owners, we need this tool to create a turnkey wellness community. It’s really empowering that we have all we need to talk about these issues in groups and don’t need to figure this out for ourselves. We are seeing the conscious change that is happening in our community.

There are articles that we wouldn’t tackle without the Pathways Connect Dialogue and Resource Guide. Once people know about the Resource Guide, they have the confidence to read and to talk about these articles, like the one by Ervin Laszlo, the twice-nominated Nobel Peace Prize scientist. It’s really exciting to see the understanding emerge.

I see the value in this project, which is why I am working so hard to make sure this program has a 50-year future.

The Cultural Creative insights and the Global Shift insights in Pathways highlight exactly what is going on here. A lot of people don’t know that there are so many other people who feel the way they do. We just help them get together, and they instantly connect.

—John Edwards, D.C., Southwest Florida Gathering Group

Pathways Issue 36 CoverThis article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #36.

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