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Relational soil and movement building

By ūüíĆ

I am transfixed by the massive unfulfilled potential in human relationships: by what is denied, sealed off, neglected in our everyday interactions. I see this untapped potential everywhere: pushing a cart at Costco, staring blankly out the backseat window of an Uber, hunched over a cell phone at the playground. Collectively, there is so much longing for connection, for sanctuary, for belonging, yet across the range of our social systems we display so much inability to fulfill this longing, with so much wasted energy resulting. 

There are many reasons for this, but let's take just one. 

In the overculture (i.e., dominant culture), especially in mainstream U.S. contexts, there is a pervasive, hegemonic framework, like an all-encompassing matrix, that runs through our everyday lives and structures our possibilities. We call it individualism, but the word doesn't do justice to its power. There's a special kind of individualism that plagues education. Another one that undermines the strength of activism, politics and social change efforts. Another one that ensnares parents and families in self-interested survival bubbles. It crops up in spirituality, in wellness, in dating and relationships, in self-care. It's everywhere, and since it is a false framework, it takes a toll in all these contexts, continually depleting and undermining the capacities and powers that would flow from our relationality, and turning them into 'waste products': habits of concealment, dishonesty and self-erasure that we cling to out of self-protection.

This framework falsely posits the solo individual as the primary unit of society, the Lego-like "building block" out of which all social relations are built. This claim runs contrary to legions of evidence, arising from multitudes of ways of knowing from neuroscience to art to indigenous or Buddhist epistemology, that we are inherently interconnected and relational at our very core: we are relational animals. This means much more than "relationships are important to us." It means relationships to other human beings are foundational for us: they are the original context out of which we emerge as individuals. 

Illustration of two people in relationship

Compare us to Lego blocks, which primarily exist by themselves and only secondarily get connected to each other (always remaining separate and distinct in that connection). For us, in contrast, relationship is primary: we begin our lives as infants whose very survival depends on receiving a "good enough" amount of love and connection from our caregivers. Have you seen the bone-chilling literature on Romanian orphanages under Ceaucescu, where infants and children were kept under extreme conditions of social-emotional deprivation? These children experienced a range of material caregiving (mostly they were fed and clothed) but they were systematically deprived of opportunities to bond and develop emotional attachment to caregivers or other children. Many simply died under these conditions, and others experienced devastating and lifelong negative impacts. 

This is what attachment theory is all about: helping us understand that from the beginning, we were never like Legos. Instead, we need relationship to develop: like a butterfly that doesn't get a chance to adequately stretch out and dry its wings after emerging from its chrysalis, if we do not experience minimally adequate bonding (love, affection, nurturing touch, mirroring, care, concern, support) as infants and young children, subsequent stages of our neural, psychological, and social-emotional development will be severely impacted. 

Outside of extreme situations, most people get some bonding from our primary caregivers in infancy and childhood; some affection, some nurturing touch, some mirroring, some support. The problem is that we get it in a mixed package: along with it, we frequently also get some a decent dose of trauma: rejection, abandonment, neglect, and violation (see a companion article on the unprecedented levels of trauma by my dear friend Dr. Kritee Kanko, a climate scientist and Zen Buddhist teacher, here).

And the signature work of trauma is to impede and impair our ability to connect with each other and build deep, trusting, secure relationships -- the kind we need to stand shoulder to shoulder and face down the biggest challenges of our time, like climate emergency and white supremacy. 

We are in a collective predicament because of this. If you scratch even a little beneath the surface, just about everybody is traumatized by not having gotten the love they needed when they were little, by the mixed bag of hurts they carry. And interwoven with familial trauma are the traumas inflicted by systems of race, class and gender oppression and exploitation, and the collective trauma we all suffer from living in on a planet racing towards catastrophic and irreversible ecological tipping points. And finally, wrapped around all of this is the pervasive culture of individualism that surrounds us on all sides, structuring our everyday interactions in the subtlest of ways, cutting us off from each other out of habit, simply because so many tedious, outworn social norms dictate it. If you enter a room full of people you don't know, don't make eye contact! Be composed, self-sufficient. Greet maybe one other person very casually and occupy yourself with your phone. 

But -- here is the extraordinary thing -- because we are relational animals, not having had enough connection also gives us an extraordinary set of untapped powers that stem from longing for connection. 

Our longing for connection is mostly hidden. Most of the time, caught in our mundane goals and tasks, we don't experience its full force. Instead we experience what I call interpersonal magic spells: the subtle push and pull of other people on our attention, whether we are interested in or attracted to, irritated or repelled by them. I'm talking about what we experience when we enter a room full of people we don't know, or find ourselves gazing out the window of our car at the person in the next car over, wondering about their life. You can even tap into what this sounds like in the privacy of your own head: ruminations about 'What did this person think of me? How did I come across in that encounter just now? How does she see me? What do I really think of him?' 

Try to fully track sometime the amount of bandwidth your psychic life dedicates to these musings and explorations. You'll find that even if you don't think you spend much time explicitly thinking about what others think of you, it's a constant feature of neuro-typical experience, like a background awareness which unfolds naturally both in and out of social contexts, in our work time, leisure time and play time, even for those who tend to be solitary and introverted. 

This stream of interpersonal "magic spells" that we cast on each other is a rich, untapped source of relational energy. Most of the time, we squander its power. We interact with the people we already know, within the boundaries of well-worn and familiar social routines that keep the wild magic of connection buried under tons and tons of concrete. 

But we don't have to squander it. 

Sometimes this energy breaks out of its confines like those plants that manage to lift the sidewalks for a crack of light, for better or for worse: people have affairs, or they stumble on unlikely, off-the-beaten-path friendships out of sheer luck. And sometimes, we simply reach across the boundaries of an improbable situation (a doctor's waiting room, in the grocery store parking lot) to connect with a stranger, both our hearts momentarily held open like flower petals. 

Situations like these tell us that this relational energy is our birthright. They affirm what we know deep in our hearts: we were born to love and be loved. This is what the infant's eyes tell its mother, and this is what our eyes tell the stranger in the grocery store parking lot in that moment of improbable, heart-opening connection.

Connection is our deepest nurturing food and what makes life worth living, and to the extent that we live in a culture that strip-mines our relationships to other human beings, we all suffer from depleted heart-and-soul connection. 

We can harness the buried energy of this problem in our groups, organizations and movement-building spaces. We can develop practices that deliberately cultivate our longing for connection, rather than perpetually ignoring this longing on the assumption that relational needs are being met elsewhere, and instead we should "get on with our work." I could write many paragraphs about how this energy has been wasted in the climate/environmental movement for the past 50 years: locating the problem outside ourselves, we treated ourselves as Lego-like soldiers marching out into the world to fight for the protection of the non-human environment and the climate, only to end up depleted and drained when we see that the scope of the problem is nowhere near diminishing and we are not even remotely close to turning the corner. But what if the problem is located in us, in the way we are approaching our work with the assumption that we are Legos, already equipped with everything we need to problem-solve and fight? 

Consider this: it is the river of relational unmet needs running underneath our work that most often undermines it! How many groups and organizations have you seen get bogged down in interpersonal conflict and power struggles? It would be almost laughable if it weren't so tragic: we sit down to our work of saving the world with the utmost seriousness (no touchy-feely stuff in climate movement meetings!) and sooner or later relational problems rear their ugly heads. People in this group don't really feel trust, many feel marginalized, others are scheming, too many are not invested, some are too ego-driven, others are facing burnout, we don't share common vision: BOOM, the organization implodes, or key members move on, or you move on, dissatisfied, to start the endless cycle over again. At what point in this cycle do we step outside it and realize: it's US, we keep reproducing the same dysfunctional patterns -- and admit that maybe it's our unmet emotional, interpersonal and social needs that require our attention if we're ever going to develop solutions that remotely match the scope of the problems in the world around us? 

And consider this too: we know in our bones that these dysfunctional relational patterns are a product of larger systemic forces at work in our world. Whether you name these larger forces as capitalism, white supremacy, colonialism or something else, if you're willing to acknowledge that interpersonal dysfunction is a persistent problem in movement spaces, groups and communities, you probably also sense that this is somehow a function of much larger, overarching societal structures in which we exist. This might lead you to a feeling of resignation at the thought of intervening in these patterns (What could that possibly look like? How could that possibly make a difference?).

I will tell you how folks in Social Permaculture see this urgent, necessary work: we look at it as a problem with the soil. We think the same thing that anyone who works with plants eventually concludes when their carefully watered, fertilized plants in the sunniest part of the garden keep turning up weak and sickly: hmm, this is a soil problem! And we call the work of intervening skillfully to create better interpersonal conditions in our 'people systems,' cultivating relational soil. 

How do you cultivate relational soil in movement spaces? Two examples close to my heart here on the Front Range of Colorado where I live are the Rocky Mountain Mutual Aid Network (RMMAN) and the Social Permaculture Design Course (SPDC). In these organizations, we hold two things to be true: 1) We CAN skillfully intervene in the "soil conditions" that structure our interpersonal relationships and 2) This makes the work we're doing to transform the overarching patterns in our society more likely to succeed. 

Here, in a sparkly nutshell, are some glimpses of what this work looks like: we work with the utmost care to harness the energy of those interpersonal magic spells. Convinced that what we need to heal is right here, buried in this untapped river of potential within our relationships, we use simple but powerful relational practices to invite a gentle flow of authenticity and trust to emerge in our groups. We call this "regenerative relating (see footnote)," and we do it on Zoom or in person, sitting in a small circle outside in a park: for example, each person takes a turn, if they choose, sharing a dimension of their experience that they normally would not express. Others tune in to what is being shared, and as the exercise unfolds, you can feel a fascinating and subtle energetic field emerging between participants. The exercises are carefully structured, consent-based, and designed to create a gradually deepening experience of gently coming out of hiding. 

This kind of exercise is powerful for a lot of reasons. First of all, we rarely quiet down enough to tap into what we're really feeling, and the group energy of attunement has a remarkable effect on our ability to be present to the levels of our own experience that we would otherwise miss. Second, it's powerful because the parts of ourselves that we keep hidden are energetically costly. If I must tamp down sharp bolts of anxiety every time I enter a group discussion -- or if those sharp bolts prevent me from ever raising my voice in the first place -- that is expensive. If stepping into positions of leadership roils me with traumatic memories that I cannot bring myself to share, so I studiously avoid those positions, not only is my total life energy drained but many of my gifts and capacities may never get a chance to shine forth. 

Finally, there is no power like the healing power of other people's gentle, authentic concern for our well-being. We know this, deep in our bones: a friend who heard us out, a loving partner who offered us refuge in an emotional storm, a steadfast mentor who recognized our true abilities -- these are experiences of healing relational magic that many of us have been privileged to experience and will never forget -- but most of the time we just don't know how to locate and harness that power in a structured, intentional way. 

That's what we're doing in these two orgs that I told you about (RMMAN and SPDC): figuring out how to harness that power, through a wide range of practices like the one described above, which we see as tools, or social technologies that can be used to deliberately aerate and enrich our relational soil. Why? Because we have no more time to waste: because if we're going to stand shoulder to shoulder and face down the biggest challenges of our time, we first need to figure out how to cast interpersonal magic spells that help us deeply love, trust and heal one another.