Macaco Tamerice – On Living Together

A few weeks ago I watched a profound documentary called Wild Wild Country. It chronicles the story of spiritual leader Osho and his followers as they attempt to build a utopian communal city on US soil in the early 1980s. The effort did not end well, but watching the movie, I was struck with a deep desire to see it succeed. I wanted to believe that living in community like that could actually work.

My guest today has been living in one of the oldest and most successful spiritual communities in Europe for over 20 years. Damanhur is located in northern Italy and is famous for its Temples of Humankind – a massive 11 story excavation dug out of the inside of a mountain by hand by the residents of Damanhur who settled there some forty years ago.

In addition to serving as an ambassador of international community relations at Damanhur, Macaco Tamerice was the president of the Global Ecovillage Network from 2010 until 2015. She now represents the Global Ecovillage Network at the UN and serves as the president of the non-profit Damanhur Education organization. She consults with ecovillages around the world helping them make community living work.

We spoke at length about what makes Damanhur such a successful community, how they handle conflict and governance, and recipes for living together. Communal living is an emerging phenomenon of our time. All sorts of co-living communities are popping up around New York City (and the world no doubt) and many people I’ve spoken with are trying to deconstruct how living together can work in the twenty first century.

Macaco shares wisdom on the relationship between the individual and the collective, highlighting that far from being mutually exclusive, the two reinforce and support each other.

Please enjoy our conversation.

John Marshall Roberts – On the Key to Enlightened Leadership

Recently, I’ve been reflecting on my path and its fulfillment.  At times, it can feel as if there is an ongoing spiral that oscillates between clarity and not knowing.  I have been learning how to live with this oscillation and learning to listen for whatever wisdom it might contain.  Often, the wisdom is precisely to cultivate a comfort with the unknown.

As much as I might hope to squeeze the future into a to do list, the future that I want to be a part of is well beyond my individual agenda.  In a recent conversation with John Marshall Roberts, he shares the power of personal purpose without personal agenda.  We unravel this seeming paradox and find empathy key to enlightened leadership.

I love this part – “If we’re being authentic about what we’re here to do, then it’s never been done before.  We’re a unique fingerprint.  If we find our calling, it’s never been done and we have to communicate with people who’ve never seen this before.  Empathy becomes a tool that we can use to help move them along to that next stage.”

I first encountered John in 2012 when I saw a TED talk he gave on empathy.  John is a behavioral scientist and empathy researcher and has been invited to share his research by a variety of leading global for profit, non-profit and governmental organizations including the US White House, UCLA, Unilever, 3M, Sprint, Time Warner, General Mills, and a who’s who of other fortune 500 companies.

John explains how empathy works, specific ways to cultivate and teach it, and how the most inspiring leaders of our time have used empathy to create profound change.  He offers an enlightened middle ground where agenda emerges and evolves through empathy and surrender.

John has opened within me a deep appreciation for the power not trying to fix the world.  If you enjoy our conversation, please read his four part series on inner change and transformational leadership.

Presencing in Practice

Over the last few years I’ve been heavily inspired by work out of the Presencing Institute and by the concept of presencing itself. The term presencing refers to a process of becoming present and it implies a way of encountering the present from the potential of the future. It is a way of “sensing” future possibility from the present moment.

Presencing revolves around bringing awareness to what is emerging through an iterative process of intention setting, observation, stillness, crystallization and action with an emphasis on stillness and being with what is unknown. By willfully stepping into the unknown, attention is directed towards emergent possibilities and something new has the potential to be generated.

This way of being with the unknown can be uncomfortable and challenging, particularly in situations where a clear plan of action for the future is called for. Over the last few years, I have used this kind of process to build Sutra and this post will explore what has emerged through this journey as well as thoughts on presencing in practice.

The originating intention behind Sutra was to cultivate more love in the world through mutually supportive, co-creative interaction. The heart of our aspiration was to foster deep levels of meaningful human connection – particularly around creative work. We spent the first two years testing different ideas to see what would stick. Eventually, our intention evolved into an effort to help people share knowledge and resources within community.

The work began with an initial direction that involved facilitating small group formation within the context of a larger community. A prototype was rolled out to a co-working space in New York City a few months after the first line of code was written in early 2015. Through an iterative process of observation, interviewing, presencing, and developing we followed an emerging thread to build the Sutra software.

One of the biggest challenges with this approach is that we have never really sure of what we are building. Even today, the product is constantly evolving and can be difficult to describe. This is a problem for a startup because success often depends on clarity of communication. So we are gradually finding new ways to describe our effort, emphasizing why over what and more focused on process than outcome.

The practical challenge of working with the unknown in this way should not be understated. It has been very difficult for us to not know what we are building over the long term. In many ways, this has required a great deal of surrender and trust – words not commonly associated with a tech venture.

Our intention to foster genuine human connection through collaborative community interaction has always been clear. Progress has involved a multitude of test driven iterations aimed at understanding how to accomplish this through real world exploration and experimentation. One of the earliest obstacles we encountered was community engagement and participation. It can be very challenging to get a community of people to start using a new piece of software.

A major insight came to us through our work with the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma. In 2016, we had an opportunity to run the online component of their seven month blended learning program on Sutra. We adapted our software to deliver a small group oriented learning experience to support their course and observed that a learning experience can be a significant catalyst for engagement.

Consequently, much of our work has focused on building community through learning. We have found that building community this way is part technology, part process, and part content. For example, much of the success of an online small group oriented learning experience depends on the first week of the course – how the energy is set, the safe space that is created, the way expectations are communicated, and the feedback that people get to reinforce those expectations. We have developed a set of best practices in conjunction with features designed to optimize group engagement.

The process by which we develop new features is partially intuitive based on observation and partially practical in response to feedback. We continually navigate a territory between our core intention and real world usage. For example, at the conclusion of a learning experience, we encourage participants to continue communicating with their community through the platform. The software is intentionally built in the form factor of a basic messaging platform to encourage easy interaction and collaboration. However, there is a cognitive leap that must happen for people to use the platform as both a learning tool and a collaborative utility. Our challenge has been to understand how to expand their context of use beyond the initial learning experience.

One example that we’ve seen work particularly well, is a new course community emerging from an existing course community. In the Harvard program mentioned earlier, a student decided to create her own mindfulness oriented course for humanitarian aid workers in the refugee space. Many of the students from the Harvard program went on to participate in her course.

We continue to experiment with unique approaches to participation feedback and collaborative knowledge building. There seems to be tremendous opportunity to harness the knowledge and wisdom of course participants in a way that builds community and adds value to each member. This is a pedagogical approach to community building that is based on a teacher-student and student-teacher paradigm. We are looking at ways of collaboratively capturing wisdom and knowledge shared through course conversation as a way to deepen engagement while building collaboratively generated sources of knowledge.

Each community that we work with usually cycles through several iterations of a course of learning. Each iteration is an opportunity for us to experiment with different approaches to engagement and community building with an entirely new cohort of people. At the conclusion of each experience we usually do extensive interviews with both participants and creators. The cycle is like a mini presencing process, enabling us to sense into what is emerging through real world observation and feedback.

What has been emerging through this work is a collection of tools and best practices that support co-creative interaction based on presencing and collective intelligence. Our evolving effort has focused on building a co-creative utility that can be used seamlessly in the context of real world interaction, so as to blur the lines between learning and collaboration. A system that bridges learning, being, and doing with an emphasis on authentic human connection.

Dina Kaplan – On Building a Community and a Business

It is interesting for me to observe how minor challenges that I experience and ignore are sometimes transformed into meaningful opportunities by other people.  I remember moving to New York in late 2011 and looking for a place to meditate.  It was hard finding anything and the places that I did find didn’t quite feel right.  So I just meditated at home.

Around the same time my friend Dina Kaplan was getting burned out on start up life running Blip.TV.  She took a couple of years off to go traveling, and, while in India, discovered meditation and felt called to make this her life’s work.  Returning to New York, she found the options for meditation lacking and started hosting her own gatherings.

Now Dina is the founder of The Path which hosts weekly sits, courses, retreats, and teacher training programs oriented around a modern approach to mindfulness.  She’s been covered by the New York Times, The New Yorker, Forbes, Elle, The New York Post, The Sunday Times, Business Insider, and a host of other prominent publications.

I suspect Dina might have a something of PR super power.  I was intrigued to hear how she described her relationship to press coverage:

I can just see the story, what it should look like and how to make it work for publication.  I can visualize it and pitch it and then it always happens.

She visualizes it and then it happens.  I’ll have to try that.

I spoke with Dina about her journey building The Path as both a community and a business.  Dina talks about becoming an authentic human being and shares her open hearted approach to the New York hustle, something she calls the economy of favors.  Next month, she’s hosting a conscious leadership retreat for business leaders, founders, scientists, and creatives of all types.  Entrepreneur Magazine calls it a TED-like event for meditators.  If you enjoy our conversation, please check out her MELA retreat.

Omar Bah – On Overcoming Adversity

When people ask me who my heroes are, I have a hard time answering.  It’s hard to know a person from afar and, for me personally, I have a hard time applying such a grand label without having a more direct experience of a person.  After interviewing Omar Bah, I can honestly say he’s one of my heroes.

This conversation blew me away.

Omar is a torture survivor, former journalist and refugee from The Gambia in West Africa.  Before he escaped his country he was beaten and stabbed with rifle bayonets until he bled to unconsciousness.  When the government found out that he was providing foreign media with information about local corruption, they put a ransom on his life.  He narrowly escaped and was eventually resettled to Providence, Rhode Island.

Arriving in the US in 2007 he had no family, no friends, and no resources.  On top of that he was highly traumatized from his experiences and had no idea that he was suffering from PTSD.  He literally wanted to die.  Today, a little over 10 years later, Omar is the founder of the Refugee Dream Center, a community organization serving the refugee population of Rhode Island.  Omar is also the author of the book, Africa’s Hell on Earth, and he represents the state of Rhode Island at the Refugee Congress of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Washington, DC.

Omar’s salvation came in realizing that he wasn’t alone.  Many other refugees were struggling just as he was.  In fact, Omar was fortunate to speak English.  He used the same activist inspiration that got him in trouble back home, to become involved with the local refugee population.  Since that time Omar has built a thriving non-profit organization serving local refugees and creating deep community between American and foreign cultures.

What comes through Omar’s story the most though, is his deep humanity.  His suffering has left him with a deep empathy for the human condition and a transcendent view of issues related to nationality and religion.

In this conversation listen to Omar share how he overcame wanting to die, how he built the Refugee Dream Center community, and the personal philosophy that underlies his work.

Adam Yukelson – On Listening and Not Knowing

Learning how to be with the unknown and bringing awareness to what wants to emerge has been an evolving practice for me.  I’ve spent so much energy resisting the unknown.  It is this vast expanse that stretches before me and try as I might to shine a light onto its path, it remains shrouded in mystery.  It can be so uncomfortable to just sit with this.

Yet this mystery is also the source of creativity, insight, and possibility.  Newness and the unknown go hand in hand – if something is known, then it is not new.

Recently, I had a chance to speak with Adam Yukelson, an action researcher with the Presencing Institute, whose work has inspired much of the thinking behind Sutra.  Adam shares that it is a willingness to suspend what you believe, what you think, what you know, and just be open to the vast and groundless experience of not knowing that opens us up for something new to emerge.  Thus something new is “generated” – something that was not there before.

Adam has been heavily involved with the creation of the MITx course ULab: Leading from the Emerging Future.  Their online work has reached over 100,000 people from 183 countries and is seen as a model for how to blend online and offline elements to create transformative learning environments.

We touch on Adam’s experience evolving the course, building community through generative interactions, and understanding deeper sources of knowing.  The ULab course has profoundly influenced my way of being in the world and I highly recommend this interview to anyone interested in architecting co-creative interactions.  If you enjoy the conversation, please check out their Transforming Capitalism Lab which is ongoing right now.

Hari Kaur – On Listening, Humility, and Gratitude

Recently I have been experimenting with a new approach to life and work – letting go of my agenda.  This has been somewhat counter intuitive as an entrepreneur and, honestly, I’m still figuring out the practical implications.

Much of it though, has to do with listening – both inwardly and outwardly.  A few weeks ago I spoke with Hari Kaur who highlighted an interesting way of listening to the micro and macro truth in a situation.  There is the micro truth that we often listen for, the truth of what a person is saying in the moment.  And then there is the broader truth of the full situation.  That person’s history, where they are coming from, what they’re dealing with.

That macro truth is where I often find my compassion and empathy.  It’s where I have to really look past my agenda – what I want and how I see the world – to listen with my full being.  That kind of listening is where I’ve learned (and am continuously learning) to accept people as they are – and, in turn, myself as I am.

Hari shares one of her favorite prayers, the Hawaiian Ho’oponopono:

I love you
I’m sorry
Please forgive me
Thank you

“When we repeat these words to ourselves, our listening can become more sensitive and more willing to let somebody make a mistake or not represent themselves perfectly.” – Hari Kaur

Hari has been a close friend and mentor for years.  She is a world renowned legacy teacher of Kundalini Yoga and meditation and has been teaching for almost 30 years.  She worked alongside Yogi Bhajan directing his teacher training programs for 10 years and is part of the first wave of yoga teachers that pioneered the teaching of Kundalini yoga and meditation in the west.  She’s written two books, a Woman’s Book of Meditation and a Woman’s Book of Yoga, and has created one of the most popular courses on Sutra, the Illumined Woman, with a vision to empower women at all stages of life.

In this podcast we explore a variety of subjects, from how she met Yogi Bhajan to the challenges of community and how she deals with tricky group situations.  Hari shares her profound wisdom on listening, humility, and gratitude.  If you enjoy the discussion, please checkout her upcoming online women’s meditation course launching on May 14th, or stop by her studio in New York City.

A New Podcast on Community and Co-Creation

Over the last three years I have endeavored to bring people together online in deeply human ways.  The origins of this work started in 2011, through a sort of personal epiphany.  At the time, I felt a deep call to bring more love and peace into the world through my particular domain of work – internet technology.

The years since have been a journey of trial and error, deconstruction and reconstruction, iteratively approaching an understanding of how authentic community and connection work online.  Out of this work, Sutra has emerged as a kind of co-creative utility designed for community, collaboration, and learning.

As this work continues to crystallize, I am realizing that this is just the beginning.  There has never been a greater need for presence in the world.  Not just presence with ourselves.  But presence with each other and particularly presence with ourselves when we are with each other.

Examining how to practice interpersonal presence and give people direct experience of collective connection has been a central focus of our effort.  We have worked with organizations, educators, and individuals who have been willing to experiment, fail, and succeed together in learning how to build genuine community based on dialogue and deep listening.

Every community and course we have worked with has taught us something new about how people experience empathy and connection.  Through each experience we have tried to distill best practices and create features that support safe spaces for online interaction.

To me, quality of interaction is the foundation of co-creation.  Unlike collaboration, which is a function of sharing knowledge and resources, co-creation is a function of the quality of presence that people share and the knowledge and resources that emerge out of that interaction.  Our aspiration is to build software that facilitates co-creative interaction across many domains of human endeavor.

Every day this work unfolds in new ways.  There is so much to learn and much of this wisdom is located in the vast untapped reservoir of collective intelligence.  To that end, I am launching a podcast featuring interviews with leading experts and inspiring humans involved in the heart of community and co-creation.  Each week, we’ll explore themes related to community building, practical presencing, deep listening, dialogue, and emotional intelligence.  We will deconstruct the understanding of my guests to help you create your own higher quality co-creative interactions.

This is an ongoing exploration and co-creation.  I invite you to participate as you feel called to.  Sign up for our newsletter to receive email updates on each new episode.  The first podcast interview will be sent out next Tuesday, May 1st.

If you wish to learn more about our work, please reach out to us.  You can also read about Sutra here and here.

On Sutra

Truly transformative learning often happens offline, in person, and in small groups.  People have an opportunity to spend time together in community and experience new ways of being together.  The idea behind Sutra revolves around delivering this kind of experience online. Our work emphasizes dialogue based experiences that involve deep listening, presence, holding space, and a willingness to be vulnerable.

The heart of this process is driven by small group interaction.  The small group is a space for people to get to know each other in a real way.  One of the key functions behind Sutra is the ability to take any number of people and break them up into small groups.  Once we have a group of five to ten people in a group, usually strangers, our efforts revolve around creating a safe space, “breaking the ice”, and optimizing ongoing engagement.

Bringing a group of strangers together, online or offline, usually involves some level of awkwardness.  Nobody wants to be the first to speak and everybody is afraid of being judged. With guided in person interactions, some sort of group ice breaker is often used to bridge the social gap.  It might be a silly question or some sort of activity to get people moving and playful. Or it might be a moment of stillness or collective intention sharing, something that brings the group together into the same flow.

In an offline workshop or meetup, you have a person’s undivided attention.  However, online, you might have an hour of partial attention at a time to work with and, if you’re running a multi-week experience, you’re competing with an array of inevitable personal priorities.

The usual approach to online learning is low touch.  Course content is posted and there might be a discussion forum or Facebook group on the side for questions.  And for some courses, that is a perfect set up. It’s easier and requires a lot less nurturing.

Our work revolves around building real relationships and community through the learning process.  This takes time and attention and there is generally no one size fits all approach. But there are common denominators and that is what we try to optimize the Sutra software for.

Part of the experience is content – the actual knowledge that is being imparted.  Part of it is the process – the way the group experience is architected over, say, a six week period.  This might involve group video calls with a particular interaction format, or a sequence of discussion prompts.  And part of it is the safe space that is created – asking the right questions to open up and make everyone comfortable, setting expectations, giving positive feedback, and following up with people when they are falling off.

Facilitating an engaged and effective group experience online is part art and part science.  The benefit is that you deliver a much more embodied learning experience. In the pursuit of practical knowledge, we have the opportunity to cultivate wisdom.  People can learn to listen and cooperate. They can relate to knowledge more deeply through shared personal experiences. And they can learn to hold space for those experiences – both their own and those of others.  Everyone can become more self aware and connect with deeper sources of understanding on a collective level.

A learning experience is more than just the knowledge that is being taught.  It is also the experience of learning. This experience offers an opportunity to learn new ways of relating to the world, ourselves, and other people.  A collaborative learning process can introduce people to new forms of collective interaction.

Alex Pentland, the director of MIT’s Human Dynamics Lab, goes into detail about the potential of collective intelligence in his book, Social Physics:

“Groups of people, as well as communities, also have a collective intelligence that is different from the individual intelligence of each group member.  Moreover, this group intelligence is about as important a factor in predicting group performance as IQ is in predicting individual performance.”

According to Alex, the single largest factor in predicting group intelligence is equality of participation, or what he calls idea flow.

“The pattern of idea flow by itself was more important to group performance than all other factors and, in fact, was as important as all other factors taken together.  Think about it: Individual intelligence, personality, skill, and everything else together mattered less than the pattern of idea flow.”

Beyond equality of participation, we consider how to improve the quality of the interaction itself by emphasizing the quality of presence that each participant brings.  The Presencing Institute, also out of MIT, categorizes different levels of interaction which can help conceptualize somewhat intangible attributes such as listening and presence: downloading, factual, empathic, generative.

Much of our aspiration revolves around shifting interactions towards more empathic and generative levels.  What we try to optimize for is somewhat intangible and difficult to measure. How do you measure the quality of an interaction if you are not part of it?  Is it measured by how people feel afterwards? Is it measured by some sort of productive output? What are the characteristics of good conversations and is there a way to quantify and optimize for that in a piece of software?  How do you measure things like listening, empathy, or generativity?

There is a broad spectrum of qualitative experience when it comes to collective connection, at the peak of which is generative interaction.  This is a type of collective flow state that can be difficult to describe. Professional athletes often talk about experiencing a certain flow state at the height of a game.  MIT Professor Otto Scharmer, who leads the Presencing Institute, shares the following anecdote:

Bill Russell, the key player on the most successful basketball team ever (the Boston Celtics, who won 11 championships in 13 years), described his experience of playing in the zone as follows:

Every so often a Celtics game would heat up so that it became more than a physical or even mental game, and would be magical. That feeling is difficult to describe, and I certainly never talked about it when I was playing. When it happened, I could feel my play rise to a new level. It came rarely, and would last anywhere from five minutes to a whole quarter, or more. . . . At that special level, all sorts of odd things happened: The game would be in the white heat of competition, and yet somehow I wouldn’t feel competitive, which is a miracle in itself. I’d be putting out the maximum effort, straining, coughing up parts of my lungs as we ran, and yet I never felt the pain. The game would move so quickly that every fake, cut, and pass would be surprising, and yet nothing could surprise me. It was almost as if we were playing in slow motion. During those spells, I could almost sense how the next play would develop and where the next shot would be taken. . . . My premonitions would be consistently correct, and I always felt then that I not only knew all the Celtics by heart, but also all the opposing players, and that they all knew me. There have been many times in my career when I felt moved or joyful, but these were the moments when I had chills pulsing up and down my spine. [William F. Russell, Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man, 1979].

Approaching this quality of interaction in a small group is both mystical and practical.  Most importantly, we believe that it is accessible and beneficial to almost any learning experience.  The ability to tap into deeper sources of collective insight can only serve to enrich both knowledge and learner.

These are fundamentally new skills that most people are never taught.  It’s almost like active co-creative meditation. There’s no doctrine or philosophy that needs to be accepted.  Just a willingness to be increasingly attentive and receptive to the collective experience. When a group of people connect with genuine presence and shared intention, the intelligence of the experience takes over and naturally guides the interaction.  In the process, a joyful energy emerges that serves to build deep relationships and lasting community.

Creating the conditions to support this kind of interaction is the guiding intention behind Sutra.