Harrison Owen draft september 11, 2002

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The Practice


Harrison Owen
DRAFT September 11, 2002

Not to be copied or distributed without the author’s permission.

©Harrison Owen, 2002

Table of Contents


On September 11, 2001, our world changed yet again. Four airplanes took off for routine flights on a cloudless morning, filled with passengers expecting nothing more than a continuation of their lives as they had come to know them. Business to be done, families to raise, friends to see.

Sitting among these passengers were a group of young men with very different expectations. They knew they were going to die, and had every hope that their deaths would occasion the righting of wrongs they perceived to be egregious.

Within an hour of take off, all four flights ended in a fiery cataclysm that caused thousands more to die, and the whole world held its breath. For a moment out of time, millions of people, in every corner of the planet, found themselves locked in a common space as the television monitors displayed pictures of rising plumes of black smoke darkening the cloudless blue skies of New York and Washington.

When breath returned, the commonality of the moment shattered. With the next breath many gavevoice to anger, anguish and pain. And many others gave voice to shouts of victory and joy. The lethal divisions of our world became startlingly clear in an instant.

In truth, the world had not really changed. The hungry still needed food, and the well to do continued their diets. People made love, children were born, business was done – and the Sun and the Moon marked the passage of days as they had before that moment out of time. However, our perceptions had changed, and in this case, perception is reality. But what, exactly, is this new perception – and what is the reality created? I, along with everybody else, pondered these questions, not in some abstracted, academic fashion, but with the raw existential tumult that occurs when all the pieces of your life are thrown in the air, and come down in massive confusion.

I had recently passed my 65th year, having known a rich, full life of shared experience with thousands of people around the planet. Villagers in West Africa, the dispossessed of American cities, sugar workers in Latin America, Corporate executives in the US and Europe, government officials of all sorts, and just plain folks, all had contributed to the rich tapestry that my life became. If I had a driving passion, it was to think about, write about, and work with phenomenon of Transformation in our common lives. Along the way, I was privileged to stumble upon a funny way to hold meetings, which has traveled under the name of Open Space Technology. And suddenly all of that was caught up in the whirlwind of the instant.

The details of my personal odyssey are of no moment, but in February of 2002, I found myself in Israel, and more specifically on the rooftop terrace of a friend’s apartment near Tel Aviv. I had come to that troubled part of the world to share whatever it is that I knew that might be of assistance. The news reports were filled with bombings and death, but the evening was silent and clear. A gentle breeze caressed my cheeks, and I found myself caught between the serenity of the momentand the hellish despair which pervaded the land. Somehow, in the open space between serenity and despair, words formed on my lips. It is all about The Practice of Peace, I said to the night.

In the moment, as is usually true at such moments, clarity of insight was possible only because of the lack of details. Subsequently, details have emerged, and pieces begun to fit. In what follows, I would like to share the results.

Harrison Owen

Camden, Maine

September 11, 2002

Chapter IPeace, and The Practice of Peace

Peace. It is a wonderful word in just about any language. And strangely, it seems to be most commonly used in that part of the world where there is no Peace, by whatever definition. In the Middle East, virtually all parties greet each other with “Peace.” Shalom in Hebrew and Salaam in Arabic. At time of meeting and again at departure, both Jew and Muslim invoke Peace. And they are not alone in the practice. Christians know The Kiss of Peace, andpoliticians run on Platforms of Peace. And people everywhere have gone to war in search of Peace.

Obviously the word, and what it connotes, has great importance in our lives, but its meaning, at least in common usage, is more than a little elusive. It is possible to understand the universal Semitic practice as more in the nature of a hope or prayer than a confirmation of present reality, but the meaning of the word remains a will-of-the-wisp. Like the word Love, the meaning of which stretches all the way from raw fornication up to and including “the essence of divinity,” so also Peace seems patient of a multitude of interpretations.

For many of us Peace is defined by the absence of its opposites, such as chaos, confusion and conflict. Absent any or all of these and we have Peace, and the way to Peace would obviously be the elimination of this unholy trinity. But what sort of Peace would we have? Unfortunately, I think the answer would be, pretty boring and quite dead. Peace under these terms would amountto some static, frozen, idealized state. In the hot moments of living, we might look at such a state with envy, but as a long term reality, we may just have thrown the baby out with the bath water, so to speak. In the name of preserving life, we have removed precisely the elements that make life possible.

The temptation to desire a life devoid of chaos, confusion and conflict is quite understandable, if only because all three produce circumstances that are decidedly uncomfortable. Given any reasonable choice, who would want such a life? Unfortunately, I suspect all three come with the territory, and are not to be considered under the heading of necessary nuisances. For the truth of the matter is that chaos, confusion and conflict are integral to the process of living, and each brings its own special gifts, without which life, in the fullest sense of the word, is scarcely worth living. Heresy, I am sure, but let us look more closely, starting with the “biggie” – Chaos.
From ancient times to the modern day, Chaos has definitely been “off the list” in polite society. And for good reason, Chaos makes a mess. Chaos comes in an infinite variety of sizes and packages, but all share a common trait. They do violence to the established order. Rather like a skunk at a garden party or a bull in a china shop, when Chaos raises its head, the old order stands in jeopardy, or worse.

Human beings, as indeed most of the critters in nature, become very attached to that old order, and for good reason – it provides the shape and structure of our lives, gives us meaning and allows for the orderly planning of our futures. Should the agent of chaos be a rampaging river, our response is to raise the levies and protect our towns. Change “river” to “volcano” and the response is rather the same, but usually much less effective, for molten lava usually runs its own way. Contemporary corporations are no less adverse to the appearance of chaos, and when one implodes due to competitive pressures, change in consumer interests, or because of internal corruption and greed, the response is not unlike ants when their hills are under attack. At first they scatter and run, but soon they may be found attacking the invaders and rebuilding the ruins.

No news here. Chaos is not a welcome guest, now or ever. But it may be important to notice two components of the chaos laden situation for human beings: Outrage and Control. Indeed these two go together for the basis of the outrage is often the loss of control. Somewhere along the line we humanoids developed the notion that we are supposed to be in charge, and when things go contrary to our expectations, we are not pleased. I grant that this idea seems to have some validity, if only because our dominant position iscarefully written into some of our oldest, and most revered sacred texts. For example, in the book of Genesis in the Old Testament (for Christians) or Torah (for Jews), it is specified by God, no less, that Mankind shall have dominion over the earth and all her creatures. Definitely in charge, or so it might seem.

I leave the detailed exegesis of this text to the experts, but I would point out that this idea of being in charge has its limitations, not the least of which is that it never quite seems to happen. Despite our best efforts, some river rampages, some volcano explodes, our business goes kaput, and the ants invade our picnic. If we are supposed to be in charge, something is definitely wrong.

Part of what’s “wrong,” I think, is our inability to comprehend the enormous complexity of the Cosmos in which we reside, albeit in a very small and insignificant corner. Being in control, or in charge requires that you have some idea of what’s actually happening, “get a number on it”, so to speak. True we are gaining some knowledge, and perhaps even have a general idea of the forces at work and the elements at play. But it seems that more we know the more we discover our ignorance, and when it comes to turning knowledge into power, we are definitely playing catchup ball. After all we can’t even accurately predict the weather on this silly little piece of solar driftwood we call home – let alone control it. But someday...

And then we come to the matter of outrage. Somehow it seems that the universe is not treating us correctly. When a river takes out a town, a hurricane batters the East Coast of the United States, a typhoon swamps a Pacific isle – or our business goes bump, something inside us demands that the Ruler of the Universe take counsel with us, for clearly there has to be a better way.

But it could be that the way chosen has not done at all badly. After all, with the passage of typhoons and hurricanes rock crumbles into fine sand – without which it would not be possible to have a nice day at the beach. And the passage of our favorite business typically opens up space in the competitive environment for new business and new ideas. Painful for us to be sure, but not all that bad for the consumer and the world at large. There seems to be a rhythm here. You have to plow before you can sow and reap. Breath out before breathing in.

Chaos appears in multiple forms. It is always painful if you happen to be caught in the path, but for all that pain there appears to be a purpose – opening space in the old orderso that the new may appear. It might just be that this life we hold so dear is less about the established forms and existing order than the journey itself. In which case the chaos we experience is by no means just a painful incidental, but rather an essential component, for the journey would clearly cease without open space in which to move forward. And when it comes to our notion of Peace, I would suggest that Peace without chaos would be no Peace at all.

Confusion isthe intellectual equivalent of chaos. Just when you thought you had it all figured out, the path straight, the map set, suddenly the world changed, and somehow it did not match what you were planning on. Surprise, and definitely not a nice one, particularly for those of us who take pride in our rational capacities, our ability to look the future dead in the eye and come up with a winner.

Plan makers everywhere fall prey. The general who’s carefully crafted Battle Plan gets lost in the mists of war. The CEO, who’s business Plan looked great on paper and in all the Power Point Presentations, suddenly discovers that the Yen has fallen through the basement and “The Plan” was directed towards the Japanese market. And the dissolution of nice plans is not an experience limited only to business folks and Generals. Lovers have the same dilemma. That great life plan which included graduate school, building the business reputation, creating a little capitol for investment – all go out the window when “she” appears and whisks you off to Bali. In all cases, it’s Confusion.

The consequences of confusion can be real and painful, but the major pain, I think, is to the ego. We really thought we had it pegged – but we didn’t. Our problem, it turns out, is that we had forgotten Korzybski’s famous dictum, “The Map is not the Territory.” To be sure, maps are useful, but never to be confused with the land they depict, even as menus are not the meal, nor is the book the experience.

The cloud of confusion, however, holds a silverlining. For as the faulty maps of our of our fertile minds are dissolved in the acids of experience (life), we find the page wiped clean so that we can begin again. If we are wise, we will remember the lessons of our confusion, even as the good general recognizes that The Battle Plan goes out the window when the first bullet is fired, but the activity of planning is still a valid one. It’s validity, however does not come from the plan’s capacity to create the future, for the future almost inevitably has a mind of its own. But the Plan is a great place to start, and a wonderful checklist of things to notice along the way.

In a word, confusion clears the mind of all we thought we knew or suspected so that we can truly appreciate what actually transpires. Without confusion we would be condemned to live in a world of old maps and outdated plans which quickly become dogmatic pronouncements. And the dead weight of dogma is something a vital mind can live without. If wisdom begins with an acknowledgment of our limitations, confusion may be an essential first step.
If ever there was a true opposite of Peace, Conflict would appear the natural culprit. Even Conflict, however, has its positive side. The presence of Conflict in the human community means quite simply that people care. Show me any organization, or situation, where there is no conflict, and I will show you one where nobody cares. And without caring, some real passion, the long term vitality of that organization is in jeopardy. Conflict only becomes a problem when people run out of space.

The appearance of conflict in our lives indicates the hot points of growth. In the realm of ideas, philosophies and paradigms, to which might also be added social systems and technologies,conflict not only indicates the points of growth, but is also essential for the growth process.

Thomas Kuhn, in his seminal work, The Structures of Scientific Revolutions,1 describes the progress of science in terms that many at the time, and still, find quite uncomfortable. In the place of the nice, neat, linear, rational rolling out of scientific discovery described in many high school and college classrooms, he relates a tale filled with explosive jumps and massive conflicts which not only characterize the process but are seemingly essential to its progress. As paradigm succeeds paradigm the process is characterized by discomfort at the beginning (things just don’t seem to fit anymore, and confusion abounds) and culminating, more often than not, in massive confrontation, as an older view of the established order gives way to a newer, and usually more adequate, one. Along the way, the presence of conflict gives rise to a clarification of vision as differences are perceived, formulations rationalized, and new data considered. At the end, a new paradigm emerges, a new map of our world. And then the process begins again, for it remains true that the map is not the territory.

The world of scientific inquiry may seem abstract, and far removed, from the everyday world of our common experience, particularly as we witness the bloody consequence of conflict in the hot spots of The Middle East and elsewhere. But it is probably worthwhile noting that even in the temple of science things can become very heated, and sometimes result in disastrous consequences as Galileo discovered in his struggles to articulate his new map of the cosmos. It would be very nice, of course, if such disastrous consequences could be avoided, but not through the elimination of conflict through which ideas are sharpened and clear positions formed – until the next time. It turns out that physicists and astronomers are passionate too. They care deeply about what they do. Absent the passion, and we would probably be living still on a flat earth. But when two passions collide there you have conflict, but you also have the intellectual heat and desire that transmutes half baked ideas, clouded in confusion into blinding new insights. The problem, I suggest, is not the conflict, but rather that there is insufficient space to work things out. Destructive conflict occurs when you run out of room – physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually. And the answer would seem to be – open more space.

The applicability of Kuhn’s insights to the broader world of human affairs is amply demonstrated by the rapidity with which his notion of paradigm and paradigm shift have found a place in the thinking and vocabularies of those in business, government, non-profits and the whole broad range of human institutions. As a testimony to the pervasive impact of his thinking it appears that many folks have forgotten (if they ever knew) that it was Thomas Kuhn who started the whole thing rolling. No discussion of organizational change seems to move very far without the magic word, paradigm, putting in an appearance. It is interesting to notice, however what is typically not a part of such discussions: Conflict and its potential consequences.

As Kuhn’s thinking has moved into the public domain, it has seemingly become domesticated and sanitized. Shifting paradigms becomes a matter of rational choice, or executive dictate – as in “We will have new paradigm thinking.” Or, “Our business will operate according to the new paradigm.” Doubtless there are elements of rational choice and decision making in the shifting of paradigms, but that, I think, is just the tip of the iceberg. In truth, people care deeply, and have great passion for their old paradigm. No matter how attractive a new paradigm may sound, at the end of the day, it is not me. The passage from old to new will only be negotiated with chaos, confusion and conflict. It all comes with the territory, no matter how many consultants offer Programs for Painless Paradigm Progress. And there is even a more bitter pill to swallow. There is an end to the old paradigm. It dies. In rather dry tones, Kuhn says as much.

“But if new theories are called forth to resolve anomalies in therelation of an existing theory to nature, then the successful new theory must somewhere permit predictions that are different from those derived from its predecessor. That difference could not occur if the two were logically compatible. In the process of being assimilated, the second must displace the first. (Italics mine)”2

The ending of anything, be it a theory, a paradigm, a way of life, or life itself does not take place without trauma, and even on a good day, trauma is not something that most people look forward to. And yet the old dictum holds its truth: In life only death and taxes are inevitable. Actually, taxes may be avoided which leaves death as the inevitability of life.

Not wishing to dwell on the macabre note of ending and death, I think it important to point out that even as chaos, confusion, and conflict must have a place in our understanding of Peace which may be painful, but also positively contributory, so also ending and death. Peace on earth which does not include, and also transcend, all of these apparent negatives is bound to be a very shaky Peace. And a Practice of Peace which does not effectively deal with these realities is, at best, naive.

How shall we understand Peace in ways that allow the inclusion and transcendence of the harsher realities of our lives? Peace without chaos, confusion and conflict is no Peace, not because we would not prefer it that way, but because each member of this unholy trinity makes a positive contribution to the process of living. Equally, Peace without ending and death is productive of an idealized, static life, stuck in its ways – precluding the possibility of any sort of evolution.

Had the Ruler of the Universe taken our council at the start, perhaps we could have suggested a better way. Indeed it seems that He or She almost had it right in those halcyon days of The Garden of Eden (or whatever primal/primitive vision of our initial utopia). But then something happened. Some folks will see the departure from that happy place as the beginning of the end, and the source of all ourproblems. Personally, I see it as the end of the beginning, the starting place of the incredible human journey. In a word, we were kicked out of the nest and forced to fly. Like young eagles, we have been screaming ever since, and for sure our initial wing beats were frantic, verging on comical. But we have learned. Not without a multitude of rough landings, ill advised take-offs – to say nothing of more than a few “crash and burns,” but we now know something of the joys of flight. For those who desire a return to that idyllic state, I say lots of luck. And when the going genuinely gets tough in this thing we call life, I can certainly see their point. But at the end of the day, and indeed on most days, I choose to celebrate the rich heritage of Homo sapiens, crash landings and all. The flight of the human spirit is, for me, truly awesome. But you do have to leave the nest, and that departure has its consequences.

As for Peace – I like the metaphor of flying – all of flying, including first flights, last flights, and bumps along the way. Peace then is a process, not a thing, a journey and not a destination. It is flow and not a state. Peace is the dynamic interrelationship of complex forces productive of wholeness, health and harmony. The Practice of Peace is the intentional creation of the requisite conditions under which Peace may occur. Peace, as far as I am concerned is infinitely more than the cessation of hostilities, which often takes the form of bombing the offending parties into submission until they can no longer fight back, or each other. And Peacemaking neither starts nor ends at the negotiating table, for the objective is not just a set of treaty terms acceptable to all parties, but rather the renewal of meaningful and productive life for the Planet, the nation, businesses, social institutions, the family, and each one of us.

Unpacking all of this, and making it quite practical, is our task for the balance of this book. There is little need for yet another theoretical discourse on the nature of Peace, even less for impassioned exhortation. Theory is useful, and the temptation for exhortation understandable, but given the state of our world, practical application is essential. The manifestation of Peace in our personal lives, with our neighbors on this shrinking planet, and with the planet itself, is the first order of business, indeed it may be the only business – unless, of course, we choose to go out of business.

Please do not expect a radical, new approach. In fact, I believe each and every one of us already has both the knowledge and skills necessary, and the fundamental mechanism is essentially “hardwired” into our being. We have only to remember what we know, and practice what we are. I concede that the apparent simplicity of these affirmations verges on the naive. It may also be true that a blinding flash of the obvious may be good for the soul.

The core mechanism referred to above is the phenomenon of self-organization, and the core practice is what we now call Open Space Technology3. I will suggest that self-organization drives towards Peace and, when freely operative, is generative of the dynamic interrelationship of complex forces productive of wholeness, health and harmony. Open Space Technology is an extraordinarily simple approach which enables groups of people, large and small, to engage complex, chaotic, confusing and conflicted issues in a Peaceful fashion.

First utilized in 1985, Open Space Technology has now been applied thousands of times, all over the world with virtually every imaginable sort of group. It’s effectiveness as a tool for meetings is a matter of record, but many continue to find it strange, if not shocking. The reason is not hard to ascertain, for Open Space apparently violates essentially all theory and practice of group organization. The notion that large groups of conflicted people could virtually instantaneously organizetheir affairs and pursue their tasks without elaborate pre-planning and a host of facilitators flies in the face of what appears to be the accepted wisdom. And yet the global experience demonstrates that every time a group of people gather of their own free will around an issue of strong common concern the experience is repeated provided they sit in a circle, create a bulletin board on which to identify issues, open a market place to arrange time and place particulars – and they are on their way, typically in something more than an hour. From the point of view of what I might call “standard” theory and practice, what happens not only should not happen, but could not happen. But it does. However, when viewed from what we are now learning about the power and function of self-organizing systems, the unbelievable becomes the predictable.

In truth, I find the Open Space experience much more interesting as an ongoing natural experiment in which we can both experience the reality of self-organization and learn to support and enhance that experience. From where I sit, Open Space does not contribute anything new, but rather helps us to see what is already quite functional in our midst as a naturally occurring phenomenon. But just because it occurs naturally does not mean that we can’t learn to use it, and learn to use it well even as the natural occurrence of Gravity can be used to our advantage. To the extent that self-organization in general, and Open Space Technology in particular, is productive of Peace, this is anexperiment we must run. I hope that you will take everything I have to say as a testable hypothesis, which of course is a critical part of any experiment. Don’t believe a thing, and certainly not on my say so. Do it – and if the experimental results are replicated, do it again and do it better. It could just be that Peace will break out.

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