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Jan. 29, 2017

Cultural Values and Your Warm Body

Every community leader that I meet with wants to tell me about the values of his or her organization.

There's nothing wrong with this.

But I know that what people say their values are, and what the most prominent values prove to be, don't necessarily align. They rarely actually do. The stated values are often aspirational.

Nothing wrong with this, either.

So how do you know what the real values are?

One of the things I look for is, Where do members put their "warm bodies"? Where we actually put ourselves says far more about our values than anything else.

In my early 20s, I volunteered full time at the Catholic Worker house in Orange County, California. The Catholic Worker Movement was started in the early 20th century by the now famous social justice activist Dorothy Day. Today’s Catholic Workers do many things, including feeding and housing homeless people.

One afternoon at the house, I remember, volunteers and homeless guests were sitting in one of the common rooms. One of the homeless gentlemen mentioned that he was unable to cut his own toenails because of his poor health and limited flexibility. Without hesitation, worker Dwight offered to take care of his toes on the spot. With permission and in just a few seconds, Dwight was on the floor taking the man's shoes off.

This man had been living on the streets for months. I don't know when he had last had a real home. His clothes were deeply soiled and his feet were seriously neglected. The smell alone made me uncomfortable. But if any of this mattered to Dwight, he gave no sign of it.

In other words, Dwight put his warm body next to the homeless man who had casually mentioned his limitation.

From that moment, and many others like it, I understood that the Orange County Catholic Worker house actually valued service, dignity for all guests, humility, and more than a little bravery. Whatever is written on their website doesn’t matter.

When I visit a church, as I do around the world, I notice if parishioners and or clergy approach me to greet me. I’m looking to see if they put their warm bodies near visitors because they value welcoming strangers. Nothing wrong if they don’t value strangers. It is also hard to include strangers when you don’t welcome them.

When someone in your group shares having a time, goes to the hospital, is stranded at an airport, do you notice where members put their warm bodies? Are there warm bodies near people in difficult times?

If your leadership complains that new folk don’t want to get involved and stay around, have you noticed who puts their own warm body near them when they visit?

When you consider the communities important to you, perhaps those you aspire to grow, I wonder what you will see when you notice where you and your fellow leaders put your warm bodies?

Jan. 22, 2017

Your People Are Desperate For Belonging

It almost doesn’t matter what you see and think it means.

No matter the laughs in parks, the noisy cafes or the ever ongoing phone calls in public, the people around you, and on whom you depend, are likely far more lonely than you know. Really. This is serious. Don’t let the strong faces fool you. (Remember, you’ve felt lonely when no one else could tell.)

Our experience of community has changed in a single generation. The number of people who say that they have no one to talk to about difficult subjects has tripled in the last few decades. Moreover, the size of the average person’s social network decreased by one-third in the same time (McPherson “Social Isolation in America”).[Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin, and Matthew E. Brashears, “Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades,” American Sociological Review 71, no. 3 (2006): 353–75.] In fact, according to a meta-study by Julianne Holt-Lunstadmore at Brigham Young University, more people say that they don’t have a confidante than those who say that they do[“Relationships Boost Survival by 50 Percent” Scientific American, July 28, 2010, www.scientificamerican.com/article/relationships-boost-survival .]. (Holt-Lunstadmore. “Relationships Boost Survival by 50 Percent”)

Americans, particularly those under thirty, are not participating in formal religious organizations as much as people did even a generation ago. These religious organizations were often the basis for communities of values.

According to a 2012 Pew Research report, “one-fifth of the U.S. public — and a third of adults under 30 — are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.[“Nones on the Rise,” Pew Research on Religion and Public Life, October 9, 2012, http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/.]” In addition, about three-quarters of these unaffiliated adults were raised with some affiliation, but have chosen to lapse. Note that these statistics do not suggest that Americans think any differently about God or spirituality than they did in the past. On the contrary, overwhelming majorities continue to say that God and spirituality are important.[Ibid.]

Churches aren’t the only social institutions to erode. In the 1970s, almost two-thirds of Americans attended some kind of club meeting: Rotary, Lions, PTA, local bowling league, you name it. By the late 1990s, nearly two-thirds had never attended such a meeting[DDB Needham Life Style Surveys, 1975–99, quoted in Robert Putnam, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community” Journal of Democracy 6.1 (1995): 65-7].

The average time invested by Americans in organizational life (excluding religious groups) declined steadily in the thirty years from 1965 to 1995.[. John R. Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey, Time for Life: The Surprising Ways Americans Use Their Time, 2nd ed. (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999).] Even the number of picnics per capita dropped by 60 percent from 1975 to 1999 while millennials were growing up![DDB Needham Life Style Surveys.]

I haven't even touched on the changing ways we connect, now that we can hide behind text and email. What I hope you understand more clearly today is that you are almost certainly surrounded by people who long to connect in deeper ways.

No question, you can be the difference in a world that is desperate for belonging. There is no reason to wait. The world is waiting for it.

Jan. 16, 2017

StoryCorps: A Lesson in Belonging

Recently, I heard this piece produced by StoryCorps. It moved me, in part because it is about feeling at home in America.

My family came to what was not yet part of the United States in both the 18th and 19th centuries. So Francisco Ortega’s story of when and how he felt “belonging” in the United States reminded me how hard some people work to guarantee that the next generation will feel safer and more comfortable. It demonstrates how relationships, empathy, and connection are deepened when we share the stories of our formation.

If you haven't heard this 3-minute piece, please stop reading and click the link to listen.

Francisco Ortega and Kaya Ortega on StoryCorps: http://storycorps.org/listen/francisco-ortega-and-kaya-ortega-161216/#


Francisco’s words are:

One day at college, a professor of mine says “Hey, I have these guys that are struggling.” So they gave me kids to tutor and this kid calls me to have a beer. He says, “Hey. I wanna meet you down at this bar.” So I go down.

This guy grabs my arm and he says to me, “I want to thank you for helping me, I couldn’t have done it without you.”

And as I’m walking away back to campus, I am flooded with this emotion. And I’m like “why am I feeling this way?” and I realize I came to this country as a poor non-English speaking immigrant kid and I was teaching how to write. And for the first time in my life I felt like I belonged here.

Why did this move me? Because Francisco reminds us that when we contribute, we can step up to a new level of feeling belonging. In Francisco’s experience, someone (perhaps unwittingly) invited him to help others in their formation, and this led to his deeper belonging — not only at college, but in the country.

I write more about this in the “Inner Rings” chapter in The Art of Community. We don’t need to get bogged down in the details here. What matter is that when we are working to bring people together and to create stronger belonging, inviting others to contribute (even if we think our role is to teach them) can make all the difference.

How are you inviting or facilitating others to contribute? Are they waiting for an emotional experience of belonging because they aren’t contributing yet and don’t know what is possible?

Special thanks to the non-fiction storytellers and producers at StoryCorps, who remind me that America is so much more than what network executives are willing to put on TV.

- Charles Vogl


Jan. 16, 2017

Meditation Lessons for Belonging

For many years now, I've kept up a regular practice of meditation which crosses over with contemplative prayer practice.

I started a daily practice because the stress in graduate school was more than I could take. My life was so ridiculously stretched that during my second semester I knew that something had to change. I made midnight a hard stop for my work each night. Then I would change clothes, drive the mile to central campus, and sit for at least 20 minutes, by candlelight, in Battell Chapel’s sacred space.

Many of those nighttime trips were in cold and snowstorms, and I’d pause at a radiator before entering the sanctuary to warm up. So much peace, calm, and patience came from disciplining my life this way.

If this space is dedicated to ways to create belonging, why am I writing today about meditation?

If you’ve seen or read other parts of my work, then you know that I discuss the “trap of the inner ring.” It is an idea that acknowledges that we all want to enter inside a “ring” or group of people that are cooler than the group(s) to which we currently belong. C.S. Lewis spoke on this in his 1944 lecture The Inner Ring.

Lewis says that we will do terrible things to get accepted into a more exclusive inner ring, but once we are inside it, we will always discover the same thing… that there is another, even more exclusive, ring to enter. You probably have some experience with this. Because we are always striving for the next inner ring, we live in a trap that will never end, unless we break it. He summarizes this by saying, “Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain.” Outsiders of course don’t yet feel belonging. It is also hard for them to create belonging for anyone else.

Keep in mind that the rings themselves are not the problem. The problem lies with our desire, longing really, to pursue the next ring,and the next one and the next one — to live in this trap where there is no true belonging and much loneliness.

These days, I regularly receive invitations to join exclusive groups comprised of people who are “good to know”. Fortunately, Lewis helps me see that most are simply more inner rings, and that I can choose carefully how much I want to commit to in my life. I don’t need to pursue every (or even many) of these inner rings.

If we live focused on getting into that next ring, we are not living in the present. We are not focused on the people who are already available to us without more time, money, and/or loss of dignity.

Meditation and contemplative prayer help me become present. It may help you notice what you already have and how great it already is, instead of living trapped in longing for what you don’t have, who you don’t know, or what you haven’t yet achieved.

When we are (1) present with the people around us, (2) no longer distracted by the infinite inner rings elsewhere, and (3) aware of and appreciating the people, places, and opportunities available to us right now, then we have real power to create belonging.

Imagine that someone tells you that they are creating a culture of belonging, but you know that they’re not really interested in spending time with you. Do you want to hang out with them? I think that you’d rather these people left you alone and you go finde people who really care about you.

If you decide that a meditation practice could help you, find teachers who can support your growth in their tradition. There are many traditions. The first one you try may not be the right one for you. That is unimportant. What matters is to keep exploring. Whatever tradition helps you develop a habit of meditating and noticing what is already great in your life is the right way for you.

Over the years as I’ve traveled the world learning about spiritual and religious traditions, many teachers have taught me how to grow. In time I’m sure you will find many teachers too. Below are some lessons for those of you who are just beginning. (Remember that we were all beginners at one time.)

It always starts badly

If you’re new to meditating, you will spend a large part of your meditation time convinced that it is not working, that you're wasting your time, and that you're doing it all wrong. Welcome to the beginners club.

Unfortunately this is everyone's experience. We can't know when the meditation is enriching us or not. The parts which feel like a waste of time are just part of the road. My favorite wisdom about this is "If you are meditating, then you are doing it right." (Alison Tinsley and Chris Fields)

Please give up worry about whether any given moment is working. For at least the first two months of meditating in graduate school, I was confident that nothing was working. Then there was a change. Not every later session was fantastic, but I felt different. Over time, more and more sessions felt calming and prsent. In retrospect, those seemingly pointless early sessions were necessary to get to a more mature place with my practice.

Meditating in Community

The best way to create a consistent practice is to practice with others. It doesn't matter if these “others” are your best friends (or not). It doesn't matter if you really like them. It doesn't matter if you're all meditating the same way. Sitting together quietly in a room is a powerful experience. It makes the practice more fun and after a while, if you find yourself meditating alone, you will realize that you miss those partners. This is not only true for meditation, it's kind of true for everything.


Special Place (super comfortable)

There’s nothing wrong with meditating where you are right now. But creating a special place where you meditate can make a big difference. It’s best if you can choose a spot where you do not do other things (like watch TV or cook). It doesn't have to be a place at home or a whole room. You can pick a spot on the floor. Right now, I sit in a corner in our guest room. It is set aside from the rest of my life. Whenever I approach that spot, my body remembers what I do there and I can settle in more comfortably and quickly.

Further, I make this space as compatible as possible with its purpose. I have a favorite blanket there to cover my legs, a space heater behind me, and the little table with a small lamp that lights the space just so. Late at night when I go there to sit, the room is already quiet and ready for my time there.


Good pillows

If you can, get good pillows. Obviously, you can meditate anywhere with any furniture or no equipment. But it’s astounding how good our minds are at coming up with distractions and allowing the time to get away so that the meditation doesn’t happen — even if we commit to meditating only 10 minutes a day. So being arranging comfort matters.

Good pillows are one more element that makes a new meditation practice easier and more fun. It reduces the discomfort in the early stages. I use a buckwheat filled zafu cushion (a round pillow) and cotton filled zabuton cushion (square flat pillow.) Mine are fancy and more expensive than other options, but I’ve used both for several years and see no signs of wear so I consider them a great investment.

When I travel, I use a robust travel air cushion designed for meditation. In fact, it lives deflated in my suitcase ready for the next trip. I discovered that if I have the travel cushion with me I meditate regularly on the road. I just put any blanket on the ground and then use my cushion on top. Assembling couch cushions wherever I stayed, while possible, was enough of a pain to give my mind an excuse to skip meditating regularly.


Digital Help

There are digital apps that can help too. In 2014, when I wanted to make my practice regular again, I used the Headspace app (headspace.com). Founder Andy Puddicombe was ordained as a Buddhist monk before creating the resource. The app offers a series of 10-minute daily guided meditations. If you choose to go further, the daily guided meditations slowly get longer. Whether Andy’s style will be your regular tradition, the regularity of the program can get you into the routine.

For my current daily practice, I use the Insight Timer app (insighttimer.com). It allows me to set session times with interval bells and ends my time without an unsettling alarm. Further, the app offers literally hundreds of guided meditation for days when a silent sit doesn’t feel right. The app can also track how much you meditation, how often and when. I’m working on letting go of such measures because they mean nothing to me, but you may find them helpful.

There are hundreds of meditation traditions. Don’t worry about finding the “best” one. The great thing about meditation practice is that it can become a lifelong journey. You can experiment and grow with different traditions as you change. If you can't sit still for 10 minutes in silence on the first day, then a guided meditation may be the best way to start. Who's to say how much you will enjoy the silence in years to come?

I promise: The more comfortable you are with who you are, where you are, and how you are, the more others will feel comfortable around you. They will know more clearly, even if they can't tell us why, that they belong.

- Charles Vogl
CharlesVogl.com

(painting from Matoom Art Space: matoomartspace.weebly.com)

Dec. 30, 2016

New Year’s Ritual

Mark Levy asked about creating a meaningful experience around New Years celebration.

You may have noticed as I have that many people in your tribe are trying to make a New Year's ”exciting” in some way and there is apparently little to get excited about the calendar changing over. For my tribe getting drunk and screaming for a few hours is no longer worth the effort. I wonder if it ever was.

My wife and I have been hosting hundreds of intimate gatherings for over 10 years now. Our goal at each event is to invite guests into a space where they feel comfortable and understood, and where we can together create or strengthen friendships. Ideally, I aim to create the feeling that they don't want to leave. Ideally, they understand how this one intimate experience can enrich their whole life.

Last year we hosted a New Year's Eve dinner for 14. I wanted to create an experience that was more meaningful, memorable, and enriching than just a room full of drinks and hot food.

Name Tags

One of our rules is that if even one person is new to the group, all of us have to wear name tags. Yes, some people have an aversion to nametags, but they help strangers address one another. It also means that the end of a four-hour dinner, we all remember the names of the people we now know.

I tell guests the nametags are not for us, they’re for the new people who want to speak to us. We are giving them a chance to know us better.


Silence

We began the evening sitting together in ritual silence. Rituals are important because they have meaning. Without meaning, there are just actions that use up time. I noted that New Year's Eve is a time where people appear to want to find something to celebrate and get rowdy and loud just to show they are celebrating. That got me thinking: what would be the opposite of superficial rowdiness? Silence.

Silence is a precious thing in our culture. We all have plenty of devices, people, and scheduled activities to distract us at every moment. Moreover, we almost never take time to be silent with the people who are most important to us. Silent time can be the most important time. Ironically our culture fills silence so much that just the presence of silence between us makes most uncomfortable. Chaplains, therapists and journalists know the silence can be the beginning where the magic in a relationship happens.

The people with whom we can be silent are people with whom we do not need to fill each moment with talk or entertainment. We can just be with these people as we are and trust that is enough for them. In these precious moments, and with these precious people, we realize that simply being with our friends is powerful. Being doesn’t require sparkling conversations, humorous personalities, or raucous laughter.

At our party, everyone gathered in a circle in our living room and sat in silence, experiencing being without any effort to impress or entertain. Every conversation that would took place over the rest of the evening depended on this experience of silence, and the evening changed.

Notes to Our Community

Next, I wondered what would be the opposite of the cultural zeitgeist to look to the future and make promises to ourselves and others about how we would think and act differently in the new year. In my community, a lot of us spend a lot of time striving to achieve more.

The opposite, then, would be to reflect on the past and appreciate what is now.

I therefore put out a stack of 100 colorful note cards and envelopes (and pens!) in the center of our living room. Each guest was encouraged to write at least three notes of appreciation. They were to think of the people who were important to them in the last year and whom they didn't thank enough, or about people who do not know how much they were appreciated.

Most of our guests wrote many more than three notes. Before we all sat down for the meal, we had reflected on how much other people had extended themselves and enriched our lives in the past year.

One of our guests was a date of our good friend Chef Adam. She wrote a card to me, thanking me for inviting her into our lives and the new community of friends. She had not been given the forum to express her appreciation before.

Sacred Space

Sacred spaces are spaces that are set aside. We do things there that we don’t do elsewhere. Obviously these can be elaborate permanent ritual rooms, whether traditionally sacred (like a church or mosque) or secular (like a sports stadium). They can also be spaces we set aside temporarily to make them special for a particular time. We make our home, including the dining table, a sacred space when we host an event. There are several ways to do this. Two ways are how we orient participants intimately and how we light the space between participants.

Powerful and close relationships develop over "intimate experiences." These experiences allow for guests to share stories about their formation as people and possibly the vulnerable parts of themselves that we keep from strangers. Wandering around a large room filled with loud music and bumping into people we don’t know is not conducive to these kinds of experiences.

Our dinner table seats 14 (tightly) and so we limit our evenings to 12 guests. We all sit down around a single table lit by a central overhead light and a dozen low candles. Lighting around the room is dimmed so attention is naturally brought to the table where we are all gathered. We can all feel the intimacy.

Another of our rules is that no cooking or plating takes place when the meal begins. All present must sit together. At this moment of gathering, I remind everyone that we are all present because of personal invitations, and that all have chosen to spend this time here together. There is no accident in our gathering. This reminds everyone that the time and conversations shared take place within a context of choosing to connect and know one another.

Epilogue

We created our New Year's Eve event specifically to meet our preferences and to serve our community. You don’t have to emulate us. What I hope you understand here is that we can consider what values we want to bring to a special event and create a space and rituals that can make the time meaningful for participants. What’s important isn’t whether there are 12 guests or 2, a linen tablecloth or paper plates, candlelight or broad daylight. What matter is that no one is just going through the motions of yet another forgettable gathering.

Encourage connections for belonging both within the room and relationships. Don’t worry about imbuing too much meaning in the actions you choose in the space you construct.

Have fun. The world is waiting for us to bring people together.