2015 Memories - A Kind of a DDI Newsletter - Part 1

Ten Days and Lessons in Barcelona by Nader R. Shabahangi

Ten days, Barcelona. What a beautiful spot on earth—openhearted people, warm air, a relaxed feel, astonishing sights. And ten days of learning at the Deep Democracy Institute intensive called: Power, Love, War and Miracles. It is a learning to be with process, a learning to see what is in front of me and to slow down and be truly present with that. Ten days with a hundred people from some thirty nations who have come to learn about and engage with diversity. Perhaps most personally, ten days to experience how I am used to seeing the world from my own point of view, and to understand this view more closely. And yes, to experience you, the other, and how you look at the world.

Barcelona. Plaza Cataluña. Demonstrations for Catalan independence. The next day, a counter-protest by a pro-Spanish group. The police protection is heavy. Yet as I look closer behind the masks of armed and armored police, the human warmth is very palpable: I imagine they’d rather have a copa de vino with you than stand there with a pistol and bulletproof vest. That is just my perception, I know; but again, I am attached to seeing what I want to see—warmth, beauty, loving concern. 

Our first days are to be in idyllic Sitges, a former fishing town a short bus ride from Barcelona. The very first meeting brings us together, and quickly the anxiety of encountering “the other” seems to subside somewhat. Strong coffee and ample snacks of watermelon surround the meeting area, offering a sometimes welcome distraction. After group introductions we break into dyads, later triads. The aim is to connect us. 

 

Day 1.  We are learning about conflict, learning that rather than avoid it we can consider going into it further, unpacking it and understanding it. What is conflict, after all, but something new meeting something old? Something I am used to, familiar with, meets a different way. Most often I look at the new with skeptic’s eyes, wondering what it wants, why it is disturbing me. It throws me off like the strong coffee they serve at the hotel, which I need to water down—a lot. Or the late-night dinnertimes in Barcelona, when a cautionary voice in my head tells me it is not good to eat so late. Don’t the barceloneses know that?

 

Day 2.  Jet lag. I’m not at my best. All of which brings me face to face with “disturbance.” My initial tendency when I’m feeling disturbed or irritated is to look for a cause outside of myself. Who or what is disturbing me? And why? I am settling in, minding my own business, content just to be, and there you are, asking me if I could move my chair. I acquiesce with a friendly smile, but inside a big dialogue starts: Why did you ask me to move? So many chairs are available, and I had just settled into my comfortable spot—didn’t you see that? 

The storyline continues now to include historical evidence of how certain people seem to be insensitive to others. When I was a kid, my grade-school teacher always had me move from the back of the class to the front so he could see me better. What an embarrassment that was in front of all the other kids. But as I go further down memory lane, I become aware that I’m getting deeper and deeper into my irritation. I’m the one creating this disturbance, not the person asking me ever so politely to move. The disturber is me, not him; within, not without. 

Day 3.  On the third and last day at Sitges, I receive an email that an old team member in our company has left for another job. I am surprised. How could she do that? I keep thinking about the reasons why she might have left. As I go through the day, I suddenly remember that only yesterday evening I too had talked to a friend about leaving the company myself. I had been so taken by the calm and beauty of Sitges that I began to imagine a life by the sea, away from the demands of business. 

So leaving is in the air. The motive for leaving is something I have considered not only in San Francisco; it is also right here in Sitges. It is within me. When I realize this, my thoughts about the team member having left the company change as well. I see that we are actually more connected than I thought. What’s more, this news from afar has affected my reality. The existence of a “nonlocal reality,” a reality that is not limited to local causality, gives me pause to think about a world where all is interconnected, even our thoughts.

The taxi arrives at 6 p.m. to take us to the Sitges train station. From there we catch a train to Barcelona city center. Our hotel is a fifteen-minute walk from the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona, or CCCB, where we will be meeting in the morning. It is almost nine o’clock by the time we get to the hotel. The city is warm. Taking a stroll around the neighborhood of the hotel, we discover that most restaurants are just beginning to open, with only a few people, mostly tourists, sitting down for dinner. We return to the first restaurant that flirted with us: Bosque Palermo. Ordering paella for two, we are delighted by the way it is served. And it is delicious. Benvinguts a Barcelona.

Day 4.  A group of over a hundred people convene on the top floor of CCCB, with its beautiful views of Barcelona. But my focus quickly moves from the view to a more contemplative outlook. I am struggling with the idea that I, the person I thought I knew somewhat, am not as much a person as a role. The role I find myself in now, on this warm day in Barcelona, is that of a student, of someone wanting to learn with a group of people in a classroom. I can see how I have slipped into the role: I have a pen and paper in my hand and find myself in a playful mood, joking and kidding with my fellow students, sometimes sinking into a rumination about something that is said, while trying to make links with what I know.

During the morning coffee break the classmate to my right turns to me and asks me about my work in the States. I notice how I shift into the role of a person who works inside an organization and is now thinking of the human and business complexities he faces there. In talking about the company I also notice how I shift into a more serious mood, sit more upright, less relaxed, than the student I have just been.

Not identifying as much as a person but more as a role makes me aware how difficult it is to speak of having an identity that is independent of the situation I find myself in, independent of the people around me. If I do not have a fixed identity, I am as much you in front of me. The “me” depends as much on you, and on what role you—the person I am facing—have, as on my own so-called inner self. As a matter of fact, the idea that I am a “self” is replaced with the idea that I inhabit a temporary role, which changes according to my circumstances and context. 

Day 5.  The walk to CCCB this morning is pleasant. I especially notice old and very old people walking with grocery baskets, some empty and some full, amid the young and fast-paced crowds, people who are probably trying to get to work or someplace else on time. While I am passing by many old and beautiful buildings, the concept of being a role rather than a fixed identity keeps circulating in my head. 

On this fifth day, before the morning exercise, I have a glimpse of what it must mean to “burn one’s wood.” This expression refers to dealing with one’s own personal history, which so often influences how we live in and react to the world around us. One participant has walked right into the middle of the group and starts to talk about his need for clarity; he is upset because he feels there is a lack of structure. I notice how I am becoming increasingly irritated by his demeanor and demanding attitude, which takes up more and more group time. I notice an urge to shout at him. 

Then I stop for a moment and become curious: what is making me so irritated, even angry? What is being triggered in me as this man speaks about his need, as he takes time to express himself? I then remember how I had to fight Hans, the bully in my sixth-grade class; how he seemed always so full of himself, and at the expense of so many others in the class. It did not feel fair, especially to those of us who were smart but had a quieter way of talking, who were more reflective and slow in the way we spoke. We continually had to fight to be heard, had to deal with Hans’s insensitivity and callousness. When I remember Hans and my situation in middle school so long ago, I am able to feel more connected to what is happening now. Rather than feeling irritated, I open up to this man’s point of view. I am able, to however small an extent, to burn a little of my wood left from those days of being bullied. After all, Hans taught me to fight back, speak up, sometimes even scream—all ways of being I have been able to use quite frequently and successfully in my live. Thank you, Hans.

Day 6.  Las Ramblas is a fantastic street to stroll on, especially on a warm evening—and all of our evenings in Barcelona have been warm. When we are eating our mandatory paella in an outdoor restaurant, on Las Ramblas, the world feels in harmony and order. None of the people streaming by seem in a rush. All walks of life—singles, couples, families, even a few stragglers—are passing by in a relaxed fashion as we enjoy our signature Barcelonan dish. It feels good to take some time to be contemplative and have a change of scenery. 

This mood follows me into day six of the workshop and to the morning’s exercise, which has us work on our organization, the spirit, and ourselves. In helping my dyad partner through the exercise, I notice how at one point I get caught in being directive rather than following his process. Though my intention is to be helpful, I have become controlling, and my partner lets me know exactly that: he feels he is being told what to do.

At first I am stunned and want to protest. Of all the possible behavioral traits, I certainly do not feel I have the need or wish to control. Yet my partner confronts me with just that observation. I need to look at myself and want to understand that part of me that seems to want to control. Indeed, when I then begin my inner work, I notice a tendency in me to enjoy control, one that likes feeling right and being in charge. 

Though seeing this is painful at first, once I allow myself to accept the controlling part of me, I can let go of it. In acknowledging the perceptions and feelings of my partner, I can more fully “see” my different parts. I learn that there is always at least a little truth to what the other sees in me. In being inquisitive about what pains me in the perception of the other, I become more accepting of the many parts of myself, of my own inner diversity. 

Day 7.  Today I begin to feel that we are entering the last days of the workshop. I notice that I feel a bit sad about having to say good-bye to so many friends, both old and newly made. I find myself looking around to see whom I can still have lunch with, or a cup of tea. I also survey my memory, reviewing what I have learned in these last days. What sticks with me is the importance of an attitude of curiosity, of allowing oneself to explore, to discover. At the core of cultivating this attitude is a question rarely asked when we encounter something that bothers us or someone who irks us: What is welcome here? Asking this puts us at once into a different position. Rather than rejecting the situation outright, we say hello to it: How are you? What can I do for you? What would you like me to know?

Barcelona is a perfect place to practice saying Hola to the unknown, to potential or real trouble. The loving and accepting ambiente of this city and people makes it easier than it might be in other places to stay open and curious to the unfamiliar, the new.

Day 8.  For whatever reason or reasons, today is difficult. It might be the intense group process, which leaves me pondering the inevitability of the end of the workshop; or the slightly overcast weather in the morning; or last night’s dream: this day simply feels difficult. 

When I check in with myself, take a moment to be still, I hear a small, hopeless voice, which challenges the work I am doing to become more aware and cultivate a different approach or attitude to life and conflict. What difference can I make in a world that has so many problems wherever one looks? 

During the break, fueled with strong Catalan coffee, I meet a fellow student who without any prompting starts to relate some words he has heard from our teacher: If we do our own work, we work for the world as well. Every time we work on a relationship, or try to understand it better, the effort extends hope and support beyond the relationship. Our personal work affects the world as much as the world affects us as individuals. And since we live in a world of nonlocal phenomena, the boundaries of our personal work extend to the larger world beyond our sight.

As I finish my last sips of coffee I feel lighter, as if the burden of hopelessness has lifted. Knowing that my own small work here at the workshop and at home somehow makes a difference restores me to a sense of promise and possibility. 

Day 9.  On our last full day together there is a definite sense of closing and departure in the air. Many of us who have not been able to facilitate a group process now seek any chance to do so. Some of us, looking forward to the evening’s dinner and dance party, are exchanging tips on the best way to get to that special locale, not far from the Barcelona harbor. 

Our group process deals with the topic of “Me and We.” Participating on the outer perimeter of the group and observing the many roles present in the group, I become aware how difficult it is for me to take the basic role of Me, the role which represents that I am important, that I count. I then remember our teacher telling us that whenever a role is difficult to represent, it shows up as a “ghost” role, in the air, so to speak. I imagine if I expressed the ghost role in an exaggerated way, it would say, “I am all important, I am the one around whom the world turns.” And while I repeat this to myself, I am surprised to notice that there is a truth in that role, and that such a position is important as well, especially if one is standing up for a belief, a cause, or a new idea. In thus inhabiting the ghost role of Me, I watch my initial discomfort turn into a discovery of the importance of the ghost role. This gives me new confidence to bring that latent role, often so difficult to express, into the room. 

Day 10.  Many of us enjoyed the party last night, our last night in Barcelona. After much wine and food we danced for a long time until being gently reminded of the closing time. Some of us were sad in anticipation of the final good-bye; others felt relieved that a quite intense time of learning and growing had come to an end. 

Today I fall into a reflective mood, trying to summarize for myself my learning and experience of the last ten days. The refrain in my head is persistent: “You are in me, and I am in you.” The distance from me to the other, the one outside of me, has become less and less. And not just my distance to other people: in a local bookstore I see a book on the world of trees, how they communicate with each other, alert each other to danger, and help each other when in need. I am attracted to this secret life of trees and filled with new curiosity. “You are in me, and I am in you” extends not only to my fellow humans but also to all that exist on our planet. In the final hours of the Barcelonan DDI Intensive, this sense of interconnectedness comes home to me.

Saturday, 12. December 2015

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