Friendship and Awakening
For the last ten days, I have been participating in a forum which is part of the online learning community that I have helped set up for donors to the Peruvian-based NGO (non-profit), Alianza Arkana, located in the Amazonian city of Pucallpa. The idea of the learning community is to help engage individual donors more with our work, and also offer them regular online discussion-based forums led by outstanding teachers in fields relevant to the work of the NGO.
Setting up this learning community has been a huge challenge. My original idea was to find 100 people prepared to donate $100 USD a month to Alianza Arkana. This would have solved the financial challenges the NGO faces at a stroke, and given us long-term financial stability, sustainability and security. It would, moreover, have given us greater independence from grant-giving bodies like USAID and UNICEF, whose financial support often comes with strings attached.
I soon realized, however, that asking people to donate regularly $100 USD a month was a very big ask. Also, writing to friends and family asking them to donate was emotionally difficult. Quickly, we changed the conditions and people either made one-off donations or contributed any sum between $10-$100 USD per month to join the learning community. That way, we ended up with about 50 people registered as members of the learning community.
We have now run two on-line forums. The latest forum, which finished today, was called ‘Conversation as a Practice in Social and Political Change’. It was led by Patricia Shaw, author of ‘Changing Conversations in Organizations: A Complexity Approach to Change’, one of the most original and insightful books on organizational change. In the forum, Patricia drew a lot on the ideas of Hannah Arendt, a writer whose work, like that of other innovative thinkers such as Rudolf Steiner and Ivan Illich, still remains far outside the mainstream – probably because all this work deeply challenges the assumptions on which the dominant worldview is based.
In this blog entry, I want to outline and explore two key themes that emerged in this forum.
1. The first is Arendt’s idea that friendship is the basis of political activity.
I found this very illuminating as I can see that the work we are doing in the Peruvian Amazon can be seen as founded on friendship, though we generally use a less personal and more organizational word like ‘partnership’ to describe the principles embodied in our work.
We are trying to create an organization that is non-hierarchical – we sometimes joke that Gaia is our boss – and based on consensus-decision making. I agree with the idea from sociocracy that in organizations the power to impose your will over others due solely to your position is a form of violence. The challenge of creating an organization based on these values, which we also see as part of the principles of permaculture, is not to be underestimated. It requires that everyone step up to take on the role of organizational leadership, that is not only focus on their particular area of work, but understand and enact this in the context of the whole organization. This is especially important, moreover, because all our key areas of work are interconnected.
Everyone taking on organizational leadership requires maturity, attentiveness, an attitude of service to a larger whole, a healthy relationship with our egos, a good balance between receptiveness and assertiveness, discipline and stamina. It is not a flaky, anything goes situation. The key factor that enables us to do this is our relationship with Madre Ayahausca.
Because we are all involved with this traditional Amazonian plant medicine, and occasionally consciously drink together in an organizational context as part of our decision-making, we can access a higher wisdom that enables us to resolve individual differences of view and personality. Plus, individually, the medicine is hugely helpful in having a wider, less egoistic perspective on ourselves and the work issues we face. Drinking medicine together, too, is a great catalyst for forming friendship and often gives insight, determination and courage to confront difficult situations.
The other significant dimension of friendship in our work is our relationship with our indigenous partners. I have written before of the challenges of these relationships – many Shipibo, as a survival strategy, have become very skilled at offering apparent friendship and then exploiting this for their own ends.
Re-framing our work as building friendships takes us out of the normal Western international aid and development discourse, which, like most Western political and economic institutions, has well outlived any initial usefulness it might have had. Additionally, friendship is more consistent with indigenous ways of being. Thinking in terms of friendship also indicates that time, and being here for the long-term, is a key dimension of our work. Genuine friendships do not happen overnight.
2. The second key theme that emerged over the nine days was ‘awakening’.
In one of the threads of conversation in the forum, Patricia Shaw commented:
“Hannah Arendt also traces how in the West we have a long tradition that elevated the contemplative life over the active life. Withdrawal from the world in order to hear and commune with the voice of God, a higher self and so on. Her work was to avoid this polarization also – her Vita Activa seems to me about being a spirited person participating in the arising of the World. She makes worldliness a very different idea.”
This thread of conversation led on to the idea of a practical, political awakening in relation to the world we are living in, being able to see through the spin and sophisticated bullshit that has become the normal modus operandi of corporations and conventional politics.
I think we are seeing the outcomes of this awakening in the many different new political movements arising over the world which are largely self-organizing, highly participative and outside the traditional hierarchical, political party-based structures – for example: the Greek Solidarity movement; the Occupy movement; and Podemos in Spain. All these groups are trying to create more open political spaces in which different voices that are normally marginalized can be heard.
I very much like the word ‘awakening’ as I think it suggests some consequent, necessary action. What is the point of being awake if you don’t do anything? You might just as well go back to sleep. I prefer this word to a word like ‘enlightenment’, which often sounds grandiose and, at least in my case, unachievable in this lifetime.
Madre Ayahuasca is doing her best to wake us up. She shows us a range of awakenings.
i) First, there is a therapeutic awakening in which we realize that our ideas, attitudes, feelings, behavior patterns and personality structures are not a given but have been conditioned by our individual and cultural histories and can therefore be open to change. There is growing evidence that she is very effective in waking us up from the numbness, depressions and anxieties of past traumas we may have suffered.
ii) We can also awaken to the ancient idea of our destiny. This has been eloquently expressed by James Hillman in his book, ‘The Soul’s Code’, with his idea of the ‘acorn myth’. In this interview, Hillman says:
“The myth says that the roots of the soul are in the heavens, and the human grows downward into life. A little child enters the world as a stranger, and brings a special gift into the world. The task of life is to grow down into this world. Little children are often slow to come down. Many children, between the ages of approximately six to fifteen, say, “I don’t know what I’m doing in this family; I don’t know how I ever landed here.” Parents say about children, “Boy, I don’t know where this child come from. He’s nothing like anybody else in the family,” and so on. The perspective is that we came to earth as a stranger and slowly, as we mature, grow into the world, take part in its duties and pleasures, and become more involved and attached.”
If we are so graced, Madre Ayahuasca can awaken us to our destiny and the ‘special gift’ that we each bring to the world.
iii) Thirdly, there is a spiritual awakening, sometimes through the form of initiation into specific traditions.
iv) Fourthly, and this seems increasingly important in the times we live in, there is an ecological awakening where we realize on an experiential, almost cellular level, how deeply interconnected we are with one another and the earth, and that, consequently, what we do to the earth, we do to ourselves.
v) Finally, there is the kind of awakening so brilliantly shown in the two films ‘The Matrix’ and ‘The Truman Show’, where our conventional understanding of reality is shattered and we see how deeply fabricated our normal consensus reality is. As those films show, once you have taken the red pill, there is no going back.
Obviously, these five awakenings are not separate. They intertwine like snakes, or the vine herself, and inform one another. It seems that this extraordinarily intelligent and sentient being called ayahuasca is leading us to an integration of these different dimensions of being awake – showing us that spiritual awareness and political action need one another.
PS If anyone would like to join the Alianza Arkana learning community, please click on this link.