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Part of Towards Transformative Conferencing and Dialogue: Collection of papers and notes, problems and possibilities on the new frontier of high-risk gatherings concerning social development (1991). Prepared in the process of envisaging the group dynamics of the World Parliament of Relgions
It is important to recognize that this is an old and important archetype. A further manifestation is therefore much to be welcomed in these strange times. The challenge is to attempt to recognize some lessons from past manifestations (notably the gatherings of "spiritual and parliamentary leaders") and to reflect on means for avoiding a number of conventional traps. More positively, the challenge is to find ways to move forward, whatever "moving forward" can be understood to mean.
Each of the following represents a commonly used path at gatherings endeavouring to respond to similar inspirations. Each may be considered quite adequate to a certain image of what needs to be achieved. Each accomplishes certain things, but also blocks the accomplishment of others which may be of greater import. A proportion of any group of participants may be well content with one or more of them and may see them as the fulfilment of strategic objectives. It is important however to keep asking questions about the limited nature of such achievements in the light of what needs to be accomplished.
(a) Speechifying: It is characteristic of gatherings of those of spiritual inspiration for the key participants to slip into the mode they tend to use when speaking to their constituencies. Speakers have a tendency to want to speak for 15 to 30 minutes (or preferably more). An assumption is made that the longer a person speaks, the more important that person is, or the more vital the insight that he or she has to communicate. It is almost impossible to cut short a spiritual authority who is speaking his or her truth -- however inappropriate the intervention may appear to others.
It is difficult for anyone to criticize a gathering in which each speaks in this way. Many leave contented that they have said their piece or heard valuable insights. It may however be argued that the subsequent import of such events is relatively minor. It demonstrates that people of different inspirations can be together. It seldom demonstrates that they can rise above their differences. In fact it is quite common for they key participants to have only the most formal interaction on the occasion of such gatherings.
(b) Exchange: Stress may be placed upon the ability of the participants to "exchange views" and insights. Facilities may be offered for the key participants to have many informal discussions unconstrained by protocol. This may extend to panel discussions, even responding to views expressed from the floor. The challenge in this case is that of "insight capture". If the purpose is to offer new perspectives to the participants through the interaction, then they will of course learn from the processes in which they participate. If the challenge is a more collective one, aiming to affect wider society, then it may be difficult to capture insights in such a way that they can be communicated beyond the conference setting. There is also a way in which participants can slip into what amounts to a "chatting mode". Relatively trivial exchanges are then given greater import than they merit and few of those involved are empowered to question their value. This is especially evident to those subsequently exposed to the proceedings who are not swayed by exotic contexts and charismatic personalities.
(c) Friendship and bonding: There is of course much to be said for the establishments of bonds between those of different spiritual orientations. These may well transcend all formal differences and be the basis for future work together. Such bonds establish trust. Here the challenge is what might be termed the "indulgence" of mutual discovery where this does not have significant effects on the wider conditions of society. So powerful or significant can such bonds become between two people that the success or failure of the gathering as a whole becomes of relatively little significance. The insights from such bonding tend not to be applied to improve the quality of the gathering. They may even be used to reinforce factionalism.
(d) Honouring: At a gathering of those dedicated to the spiritual journey, it may be considered appropriate to honour the spiritual role played by each. This is especially the case where those eminent in religious hierarchies are present, or in the case of those charismatic spiritual leaders who are habitually surrounded by disciples. Honouring may be considered a vital process for someparticipants, especially where this is seen as a cyclic energy relationship with those of greater insight. Here the trap is to prevent this process from taking precedence over other processes which can move forward the gathering as a whole. Honouring can reinforce existing patterns. It is not clear how it can open up new patterns that are not polarized around those who are so honoured.
(e) Celebration: Such a gathering may be seen as a celebration of concord. The fact of participants having gathered together may then call for celebration. Concord is affirmed through celebration. Celebration may be of a spiritual nature, through collective participation in a common practice (possibly prayer or mediation), or a succession of services inspired by different traditions. Such spiritual celebration, with all that it can imply, may be seen as the real "work" of the gathering. Celebration may also be of a more secular nature -- using cultural events to express the joy of being together. The trap in both cases is that this process usually fails to address the issues of what so effectively keeps the participants apart in wider society. Whatever higher union is acknowledged, the process tends to "paper over the cracks" and fails to move collective understanding to new levels. And any attempt to draw attention to such issues is seen as a descent into negativity.
(f) Symbolism: Holding the event may be seen as an important symbol in its own right. It is then seen as an embodiment of togetherness and a reference point in a society challenged by chaos. The image of the event may then become very important, especially in the way it is presented and developed by the media. But focus on cultivation of the symbolic dimension may well prevent people from actually working on the issues that otherwise divide them. The symbol presented then becomes yet another exercise in tokenism by which people in wider society are increasingly disabused.
(g) Declaration or appeal: There is a much favoured tendency to formulate a declaration as a concrete outcome of such a gathering. Much effort goes into producing the right wording, and subsequent effort may go into disseminating the document. The trap here is that it diverts effort away from the work the gathering may do into statements of principle and intent -- which it has often proved impossible to embody in the processes of the gathering itself. Unfortunately there are many such declarations from past meetings and it is worth noting that little attention is paid to them, especially on the occasion of the next gathering of that nature.
In addition to the above challenges, there is also the delicate challenge of the protocol relationships with the organizers and hosts. There is often a traditional protocol, even a "protocol department" in the case of governmental hosts, which imposes rules and obligations that it is difficult to circumvent without causing deep offense. This may govern the physical arrangements of the podium, the order of speakers, and the length of time it is considered appropriate for them to speak in welcoming participants and in opening the event. It may extend to the rules governing interventions from the floor. All these factors can, under certain circumstances, have an exceptionally deadening effect.
The problem of languages and the need for interpretation can easily destroy any possibility of moving out of the most formal of settings.
There are no elegant solutions currently available to the challenges identified above -- especially since many of the "traps" can be seen as quite satisfactory conference processes. It is perhaps more appropriate to see each such process as vital to the health of the conference. The challenge is to ensure that no single process becomes the dominant feature of the event. It is then a question of developing and maintaining a dynamic, creative balance between a number of somewhat incompatible processes. But again, the art of achieving this is not readily accessible.
Some possibilities include:
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