Monthly Archives: February 2012

Participation and communication pt. two: the stages of community building

The main reason for communities to break apart is conflict; conflict mostly caused through a lack of communication. When people get together and discover their freedom, they feel like there is new meaning in their collective but also individual lives. They mostly experience some kind of deep harmony. Scott Peck in his book ‘A different drum’ names this the first stage of community building, where we discover and live our similarities and common interests and goals. He calls this stage however ‘pseudo-harmony’ because during the phase of discovering new individual and collective meaning we tend to oversee each other’s vices.

Therefore the stage of ‘pseudo-harmony’ is mostly followed by the second stage, the stage of chaos and conflict. Most of us probably know this from relationships that seem so perfect in the beginning; often only until we start discovering each other’s differences. When conflict arises however, community often falls apart, because peaceful communication based on understanding and compassion is not something we’ve learnt or are acquainted with and therefore fails. This ends up in disappointment, defensive talking, assumptions, accusations which in turn end up in a lot of the early ideals losing their meaning.

So what is it that makes communities succeed when others fail?

According to Peck, the second stage should be followed by a third one: the stage of emptiness, introspection and self-reflection, trying to understand the other side as well as looking for the fault within ourselves. It is here that we realise the dimensions and the depth of the levels on which we have to work together. In conflict resolution, communication and self-observation are put to the test. If self-reflection is not achieved in a way that encourages participation, social sustainability is not achieved. Often parts of a community fall into a false acceptance, letting decisions just happen, not complaining to avoid further conflict; however with parts of the group staying emotionally unsatisfied.

The ideal of equality and the potential of collective wisdom are both lost through a lack of communication. Little communities that were looking to make a change in society end up mirroring that society that they wanted to change; structural hierarchy, authoritarian organisation, majority vote – structures that put one on top of the other and create winners and losers in a system of inequality.

If a couple, group or community reaches over that third stage of emptiness and goes towards an integrated harmony as a forth stage, they have completed the cycle, effectively dealing with conflict and setting up an organisational structure that is free and dynamic enough to be successful, sustainable while engaging every member in participation and fulfilling its up to highest potential. Any day, it might start the cycle anew.

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Deep Listening and Action Learning

Splitting up into pairs for exercises on deep listening is one thing we’ve gone through a lot during the Ecovillage Design Education in Sieben Linden. Also as a Permaculture apprentice we go with people through this valuable process again and again when we do our action learning guilds. What does it mean deep listening and why do we do it?

The answer can be given through a little exercise that you can do with a friend or anyone who is up for it. Two people sit together when the First of them asks the Other “How are you today?” While the Other takes two full minutes to express his or her feelings or what he/she has done on that particular day, the First person does everything possible to show he/she is not listening: drawing or writing on a piece of paper, playing with the mobile or a dog that’s around, tying up the shoelaces, etc. After two minutes they change sides. After both sides had their turn, they can reflect on their experiences before going through the same question again, this time listening to each other with their full being.

Listening with one’s full being is deep listening. It is important in the second part of the exercise to look in the other person’s eyes and being fully present, empathic, listening without judging. This is a process of mutual giving.

It helps to reflect on what you experience in the process of listening and being listened to. This act of reflection is an important step for connecting with an experience and clarifying it for oneself, bringing it into being within oneself and learning from it. The concept of Action Learning draws the circle of Thinking or Learning, then Planning, Acting, Reflecting and back to Thinking and Learning anew. It is a circle of progressive learning. In the action learning guild we come together to answer four questions to someone who listens deeply to us:

1) What is going well, as a …. (permaculture apprentice, living being, wife, parent,…)

2) What is challenging as a …

3) What is my long term vision or goal?

4) What are my next achievable steps?

In doing so and being listed to while sharing our thoughts we create that connection between our internal processes and the outside world, the world of action. This connection is essential in learning that is directed towards action.

You have a set time in which you talk, normally a bit longer for the third question (ex. 5, 5, 7 and 5 minutes or 10, 10, 15 and 10 minutes). If you don’t have anything to say for most of the time you just sit with it and wait for things to emerge. The listener also sits quietly, fully present, not trying to judge or giving advice.

You can be aware of the qualities in this process. The listener is present, patient; the talker is reflecting and open for things to emerge from inside. Both are giving and receiving at the same time.

The Self-Portrait


“Watch your thoughts; they become words. 
Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habit. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character, it becomes your destiny.”  – Lao Tzu

Who am I and who do I want to be? That is probably a question we ask ourselves quite rarely in our daily lives filled with sensual sensations, movement, media, adverts, daily news, etc. Our restless mind is constantly looking for distraction because that is its nature and the only thing it is used to.

According to Lao Tzu, who we are today is the result of our actions done in the past. The actions we do are the result of our thoughts. So basically we are today what we thought yesterday and become tomorrow what we think today. Are we aware of what we think? Do we observe the processes in our minds? How many actions happen consciously? Is it our will directing us or rather our habit? Did we know that we shape our future self in every moment?

“I shouldn t have done this”, “I m such an idiot”, these are expressions of regret, ignorant of the fact that all of us are evolving being, making mistakes as we go and as we grow. We are constantly moving to the edge of our own being, pushing it, moving through friction to pass into new levels of consciousness. It is there where it happens often unwillingly, unconsciously and effortless. Often however we move away from our potential, into a world of more regret and suffering on different levels of our being. We fail to have our needs met, to identify our feeling and speak them out, to ourselves as well as to others.

Approaching the edge with mindfulness however makes us realise, move on and shape our next step, our next being that evolves out of ourselves. Regret is replaced with patience and effort, ignorance with intention and assertiveness. We know that a positive being evolves from positive thought; affirmative thinking is the force that is pushing the edge. We draw the picture of our new selves as we go with every thought that enters our mind, every word spoken by our mouth and every action done by our hands.

The Panya Projection

The Panya Project in northernThailand,60 km from Chiang Mai, is a permaculture community consisting of a few long-term members and a changing group of volunteers. It is a field for experimentation for permaculture apprentices and a best practice example for travellers who want are interested in alternative eco-friendly ways of living.

Most of the work here happens in the fields of natural building with cob and adobe bricks, in the vegetable garden rich on diversity and in the huge food forest which is still in the beginning stages of development. Besides that there are courses on permaculture and community aspects as well as visits from international schools.

The long-term members mostly don t live here permanently. They come from all over the world, often with one foot in the project and the other in their country of origin. This makes policy decisions, which theoretically happen on consensus, difficult; the same is true for new designs half implemented by one group, left to another.

Despite these complications, it seems as if the Panya Project has developed a system that manages day-to-day operational decisions and tasks effectively and coordinates volunteers to quickly integrate into the system. A turning wheel where everyone’s name is on is turning every day to distribute the main daily tasks like cooking, dish washing or sweeping and tidying. Other tasks, like checking the waterpump, feeding the chicken or watering the garden are executed by the long-termers; however quickly explained to a short-termer when nessecary. Short-termers are supposed to not stay less than a week, often stay longer though and are thus able to give a tour to new short-termers which takes work load of the long-termers.

The Panya Project stays in one way a little island of strangers in a foreign country (one long-termer is Thai), slowly however developing a connection to the Thai community around and participating in village activities.

Defragment a fragmented reality

I ve learned a lot during my five years of university; however the vertical thinking approach that is used predominantly in the academic world has slowly built up a wall around my creativity. I can do research, analyse literature, write scientific papers; I mean I can add one to one and get two… no one however teaches us to think out of the box, generate alternatives or even question given concepts. That is something that has been neglected and is probably not wanted by our society; to understand the system, to be a “good citizen”, we shall think like the system.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” –Albert Einstein

In my environmental studies, we had people choosing landscape architecture as their focal point, others specialised in plant ecology, or soil or water ecology, others preferred to learn about environmental law or something called sustainable development; rarely however was the architect interested in ecological matters, the new development activist in architecture and the environmental lawyer in plants or soil; mostly it even seemed as if the one saw the cooperation with the other as a burden, each on constraining the others ideas and actions.

It took me five years of studying ecology related topics to discover permaculture, attend a permaculture design course and become part of a movement that is pulling all of these elements together to represent a wholistic, positivistic science. Permaculture is a post-modern approach to gardening, building, communicating, governing and living which builds on the ideas of systems or design thinking. It puts emphasis on the fact that every thing depends on every other thing and provides us with a tool that suggests to observe the existing systems and the relationships, to dive into them and discover our place in them. Permaculture initiates us to interact and create strings of connection using available elements and patterns to create environments that are serving to the human society without disregarding the complex ecological systems they are built and rely upon.

System thinking has shown us that the interconnection and diversity of elements in a system create resilience; however they can enable small events to cause large unpredictable changes as well while a change in one area most probably affects other areas. A good example for this is the human body. In this regard, system thinking and permaculture propose that a sustainable change can be achieved by changing the system rather than a single unit of the system.