Sunday, January 15, 2012

Navigating chaos through ritual: London Feasting

In complexity-sciences lexicon, Occupy London could be said to be 'at the edge of chaos'. There are some things we know about systems at the edge of chaos that we can apply to the internal and external 'chaos' that both enables and constrains this particular manifestation of a global disquiet with the inequality and non-sustainability that stains our current socio-economy.

One might bear in mind that the use of metaphors from chaos theory for human systems, which are always, on some level, complex (that is to say, humans working together are inherently connected and learn from one another) can be quite problematic and should be done with care. Metaphors are some of our most powerful tools for creating change. Still, last night I was able to make it practical and useful for a small group of change-makers within Occupy London. Hopefully by sharing it here, it can support others.

It started when I showed up at the 'Bank of Ideas' for a conversation about health systems as a form of Commons. Since I'm thinking of the potential use of a commons-framework for some work I'm doing, this seemed a good use of a Saturday afternoon. What I had not appreciated (because I can be amazingly daft) is that I was going to the 'other Occupy London' site - a former Bank, now completely cleaned of computers and tables and chairs and filled, instead, with workshop space, a loose community of people sleeping, guitar-playing, ping-ponging, samosa-making and scheming on some worn-down leather couches And cold: they don't exactly have the budget for the heating bill. Nevertheless, this international, somewhat ragged group of occupiers is sitting between Barclays and HSBC, painting flowers on walls and holding workshops on taxation in a building worth 55 million - and paying nothing for it. Such is one of the shapes of today's manifestation of globalisation.

The discussion of the Health Commons never happened.

Instead I attended a discussion on Integral Activism (that's Integral using Ken Wilbur's frameworks) which was trying to figure out how to bring some degree of 'development' (Wilbur style) to the internal chaos, lack of communication and uneasy diversity that the (rather white, rather male, rather young) and distinctly unstructured inner workings of Occupy. I suggested that they not talk too explicitly about Integral theory and instead focus on some relatively easy, concrete actions that could enable greater communication/community/'we space' and even some bridge-making, collective reflection. I subsequently bailed early and bummed my way into a discussion on the Future of Occupy, held in one of the warmer rooms of the building - what was probably once a coveted corner office and now held a (very nice) blow up mattress, something that resembled a bookshelf , some chairs and a group of 'Commoners' and others I didn't know. Including a few Full Timers. Who were having almost exactly the same conversation as the Integral folks - how to enable greater connectivity and something that resembled order amidst a very, very open system (people coming and going a great deal with minimal consistancy). This group, though, was less concerned about 'inner work' and more concerned about strategic direction. They were talking about using scenario planning as a way of working with the different options before them.

I wondered what Jonathan Porritt would do with such a disparate group of people. Like so many others, he's walked around the camps. And like so many others, the good folks at Occupy and he haven't figured out what, if anything, they can do to support one another besides sharing some metaphors, sentiments and considerations.

Towards the end of the discussion I finally saw the pattern: there was a fair amount of internal 'chaos' in a very 'open system' (ok, yes, I know, strictly speaking, chaotic systems are closed, not open) with a high level of inherent uncertainty. There was no structure to help the chaos move towards complexity - to form patterns of interaction that could stabilise into something that resembled order.

And us humans - we love order. Oh, I know, we hate it also. But collectively creating order and making patterns to which we ascribe meaning is one of our most ancient and even sacred collective tasks. It was then that the insights that Dave Snowden shared with me in our most recent conversation came resounding back to me: one of the ways that we humans - unlike 'agents' in the complex adaptive systems studied at places like the Santa Fe Institute - create order is through ritual.

So this is the story I told. It's not, strictly speaking, true. But it's a good story.

Occupy London formed out of chaos. It was never sure if this self-organised new social movement would survive more than a few hours, a few days. But, against the odds, it has survived. It continues to grow, and to form new patterns of interaction. At first, it was mostly concerned with logistics and the basic survival needs of food, warmth, shelter and safety. While these are still a concern, it is slightly less than it used to be. It is now struggling to become more complex - that is, it is struggling to learn together even as it broadens to include the rest of the '99%'. This is a natural occurance. There is nothing wrong with the experience of frustration that is so common here. In fact, we might even see it as a good sign - provided some degree of consistant people can stick with it. It is an opportunity to evolve to the next phase.

But there is nothing - nothing - inevitable about this evolutionary journey. True: the overarching arc of history bends towards justice. But this particular manifestation of an attempt towards justice depends (partially) on the active and collective actions (forming interactive patterns) of we who can be involved. So.

This is now the time when we need to come to know one another in what we Quakers call 'that which is eternal'. The natural way that happens is around the significant passages of our lives: births, deaths, marriages. The daily General Assemblies are such rituals that give structure and collective meaning to chaos, enabling the slow formation of order.

But we don't have to wait for more marriages or deaths. There is another ritual that we can use: Feast Days.

Feasting brings the community together in celebration of itself and the world around it.

So what about a Feast Day in February, in Celebration of a True Wealth. It would be a chance for all three Occupy spaces in London to come together. It would enhance communication, community and happiness. If we did it at St Pauls, it could bring in the very rich local food movements in London. The diverse local communities could come and share their food - and with it, their culture.

We would have two rules: Come in friendship, and, Bring the food yourself. In other words - No vendors allowed.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, would be bought and sold using the currency issued by the Bank of England (or the Federal Reserve, or the EU).

We are celebrating True Wealth here. The Wealth of the Commons.

Financiers, of course, are welcome at our table. We will exchange food and friendship and fellowship. But for one meal, we will exchange no british sterling.

And we could do it every month, and make it a real ritual! Someone popped in.

A monthly feast day? I thought to myself.... is that too often? Some strands of Catholicism and Orthodox traditions do that, and in this highly chaotic situation where no one knows how long they can stay here, and in a city like London - which loves, loves eating - that might not be a bad idea.

Exactly, I responded. (Sometimes the pretense of certainty is helpful.)

So there's now a small group of people keen on organising this. Stay tuned for future developments - and get in touch if you've got ideas.

I actually won't be here in February - I'll be India. Though this blog is staying put, in that dynamic, ever-changing, never-disappearing way that the internet is so good at. If it happens in March I'll be there. March - what a long time from now, in the world of Occupy, which struggles to plan anything more than a week away. Time is different on the edge of chaos. If 'we' are still around in March, if the Eurozone hasn't driven us all into some other space, if the plans for Rio haven't torn everyone away from Finance, if if if if if .....
well. We will all still be eating in March.

Of course feasts are not enough - rituals are needed for decision making processes more, perhaps, than anything else. It is the rise of structures of working decision-making that enabled 17 century Quakers, unlike many of their contemporaries with much the same message, to survive another period when the world seemed to be turned upside down. But feasting is important. And fun.

And there's nothing like breaking bread together to find the love that brought all of us into this precious little world in the first place.


Raima said...

Lovely post! And I'm so glad to have found your blog, which was posted on Twitter by Dave Snowden. I, too, am interested in complexity and faith issues. I love this concept you've written about involving ritual and chaos. Will need to read more of your blog, but wanted to say hi.

Sara J Wolcott said...

Thanks Raima. Glad you liked it. Dave mentioned he tweeted it - good of him. Well, I hope to be writing a lot more in the coming weeks!

practicinghuman said...

So there is a historic Feast Day in February that seems well-suited to the task of being a Celebration of True Wealth: the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (2 February). This feast remembers the events of Luke 2:22-38 when Mary and Joseph gave thanks in the temple for their new infant son. Like the Nativity of Christ, this feast is "strangely" inclusive with an old man and an old woman being present to receive Christ into the temple. Simeon shows how this revelation is to all people, to both Jews and Gentiles.

Recalling Christ in the Temple also bears witness to Jesus cleansing the temple (Matthew 21:12-17, Mark 11:15-19, Luke 19:45-48, John 2:13-22 ...interestingly one of the few events recorded in all 4 Gospels). One of the many things that can be gleaned from this event is that the Temple is to be welcoming to all people. Matthew makes a point to include that the blind and lame entered into the temple. As a writer, Matthew framed his gospel in line with Jewish sensibilities. Yet he also strongly asserts that the temple should be a place of welcome for everyone.

Within the Orthodox calendar, the Feast of the Presentation is one of the 12 Great Feasts. (Easter stands alone as the "Feast of Feasts.") It doesn't quite work out to one feast a month, but it's pretty close (some months have 2 feasts :) ).

Sara J Wolcott said...

And - the best book I know on faith and complexity is 'In the Beginning...creativity' by Gordon Kaufman who has, unfortunately, recently passed away. He was a brilliant theologian at Harvard Divinity and worked closely with complexity scientists.