Contemplative Activism Residency

Contemplative Activism Residency: a month well lived

By Marc Santolini

In November 2020, my partner Liuba and I were invited to partake in an online discussion with Liam Kavanagh on establishing the foundations of a “Contemplative Citizen Science”. My research interests have been devoted these past few years to the growth and sustainability of online epistemic communities (open source, open innovation, open science…), and Liuba’s focus had more recently been on the spatial architectures fostering real-world community interactions.

During the past year, we have been navigating across a few intentional communities, noticing a common set of questions that would resonate with our own shared interests. In particular, intentional communities are often reported to foster a form of self-knowledge that leads to therapeutic self-care. But what is the recipe that makes such groups best operate? When does communal burn-out disrupt self-care? What is the sweet spot of structure and self-organization for individuals and collectives to dance along? 

Having registered on the mailing list from the Life Itself website, we became aware of the Sympoiesis residencies at the Bergerac Hub. The topics all seemed to cover what was at the center of our current interests. Most importantly, the explicit import of monastic practices into secular collective organizations caught our attention. While Liuba had had a longer history of exposure to monastic practices in her formative intellectual years, I had only recently been exploring this area. Following my personal experiences of togetherness in intentional communities, I had begun exploring how thousands of years of spiritual and religious practices had designed frameworks to foster them. We naturally decided to spend a month in this setting. Which actual residency we would attend was not at the core of our choice, given that all topics covered were relevant to our investigation. Confronting our calendars, we decided to register for the Contemplative Activism (CA) residency. The involvement of Liam in the facilitation also seemed to be a great way to reconvene and exchange further. The website offered significant details on the communal setup and agenda, emphasizing the possibility to work on one’s own projects. The collective work on the topic and the possible adjustments to the agenda were presented as an emergent property of the group itself, which seemed to be a most reasonable approach given the very novel nature of the experiment and topic covered.

With the pleasant expectation of a welcoming nature and weather in the beautiful South of France, we set sail (or rather, rail) towards Bergerac on the 15th November 2021, arriving just in time for the communal lunch. Arrivals in communities are always a particular moment. You immediately face the prior ties and untold norms that precede you, and spend some time evaluating what they are and how you fit within them. The participant pool was a mix of a “historic” reflection group on CA and of participants with adjacent interests but no (or very weak, like ourselves) prior ties. The participants’ countries of origin was skewed towards the UK, probably because of the sphere of influence of Life Itself’s founders. Despite this founder effect, participants were characterized by large spans of diversity in age (from students to grandparents) and backgrounds (from art to ecology, philosophy or psychology). 

The Bergerac Hub sits within a beautiful wooden mansion next to the Dordogne river. We were assigned to one of its high-ceiling bedrooms that used to be the mansion’s library, and were surrounded by books holding what seemed to be intellectual foundations for the residency, with organizational and management science intermingled with Zen and Buddhist practices. We were also introduced to the house’s dojo, a large, peaceful room that would be the cornerstone of the group’s contemplative practices. It is in this very room that we would be introduced to the monastic logic that would structure the residency. 

The Zen way

At the core of this Sympoiesis residency’s community practices sits its Zen guardian and “meta-facilitator” Valerie. Having spent 12 years in Japan, Valerie has experienced first hand the life of Zen monks in monasteries. She developed a deep knowledge of the Zen practices, symbols and meanings, and transposed her learnings towards what seems to have been their original raison d’être: fostering a collective dance where the egos and the group converse through contemplative practices. In other words, she sees in the Zen practices a practical and functional scaffold that to profanes would look like unnecessary and esoteric practices.

Facing the wall of the dojo on this very first day, we collectively contemplate a self-made community map: the Mandala. Spread like constellations on a sky map are small cards containing various communal activities: cleaning, cooking, gardening, repairing. On the side, stickers wait to be filled with names of participants who will designate themselves for particular daily or weekly tasks. On the left, a few cards explicit the daily agenda:

  • 7:30am meditation (30 min)
  • 8:30am samu (1h)  
  • 1pm lunch
  • 7pm meditation (30 min)
  • 8:30pm circles (2h)

Each week, a different community member is responsible to ring the bell 5 minutes before each activity. Beside the “expected” meditation practices that I personally had previously associated with contemplative practices, the Samu was new to me. This one hour practice synchronizes participants over their daily community task, creating space for a collective “dance” over communal duties. Holding the space, the “Tenzo”, a role first held by Valerie and consequently passed on to other participants, ensures that the dance is well coordinated, and takes on the difficult task to both partake in and supervise. 

Schematic depiction of the Mandala, with participants assuming daily and weekly roles. Drawing by L. Bauer.

This monastic scaffold would little by little become fully meaningful as to how it helps shape communal life. In the dojo, all facing in the same direction while sitting on the Zafu pillow that we choose, keep and care for during the whole residency, the Zazen meditation practice creates a space for collectively breathing out our thoughts and concerns. Emptied from distractions, the Samu then provides a framing for acting together while staying in the contemplative state. The predictability ensured by the carefully crafted tasks and expectations ensures that no one does too little or too much, avoiding the pitfalls of self-organization that can burn out some individuals in ill-defined communal setups. 

Complementing the mostly silent Zen routine, daily practices of deep listening ensured that all individual emotions are checked-in and cared for. At the start of each evening meditation, a check-in with another random participant allowed for intimate reflections to happen. In 3 minutes, each participant would reflect on their status on this particular day to a randomly assigned partner, without interruption. With no need to converse and find a solution to our troubles, and the ensuing expectation of not being judged, personal stories of fragile human beings unfold. Intimate insights that are usually only shared after long, deep friendships have been established. Evening circles create another space for collective listening. Unlike check-ins which are in pairs, evening circles are a one-to-all form of sharing. Taking the shape of a circle, they seek to equalize voices and foster psychological safety. The sharings enter another dimension, with the collective of listeners generating an even stronger emotional resonance. Each fragile and personal story is followed by an even stronger intimate tale, reinforcing even more the feeling of safety for next participants to the point where everything can be shared, even the deepest tensions underlying the collective. And this is where the story of this residency really begins.

The span of the communal spaces. The house rooms and natural context offers spaces for individual and collective activities that cover a spectrum from contemplative (inward) to discursive (outward) practices. Drawing by L. Bauer.

Sitting with the trouble

The theme of the residency, “Contemplative activism”, is a neologism fabricated to highlight a tension between two opposite forces. It originated from the frustration of having too little contemplation within activist movements, and too little activism within the contemplative scene. By forcing their combination, the CA group aims to unravel new modes of collective actions that emphasize the role of group contemplative practices in building trust, and ultimately a shared fate. Key to this mission is the idea oftentimes repeated of “sitting with the trouble”. Here, sitting refers to the modus operandi of the Zazen meditation practice, which offers space for an individual to physically sit with their own troubles. But how can we collectively sit with our shared trouble?

While initially relatively foreign to me, these reflections took a vivid meaning during the residency. Not so much because we would talk about CA – we actually mostly did not specifically talk about these concepts themselves, apart from maybe 2 sharing circles out of ~20. Instead, we constantly touched on these topics as a byproduct of our other activities. It even became clear, as we were progressing through the residency, that the monthly gathering itself was what the residency was about. Put in other words, the residency was not about contemplative activism, it was contemplative activism. It was not about sitting with the trouble. It was sitting with the trouble. By creating space for emotional sharings and communal intimacy to flourish, the residency created a moment, out of space and time, for participatory knowing to take over propositional knowing in our quest to communicate, understand and learn. 

The residency was not about contemplative activism, it was contemplative activism.

And so, in that particular space that revealed to ourselves our deepest emotions, we saw our fears, biases and anger slowly float towards the surface. In a place deprived of judgement, others become the diverse faces of the “world out there”, this same world one would wish to change through activist practices. The “Others” became the mirror of our own selves: how can they not understand my needs? How do they not see their power over me? And so does the safe space reveal its true nature: being safe enough to let us meet with our trouble. Contemplate it. Sit with it. Learn to live with it. Share it. Infuse it to the group. So that we all sit with it. Feel it. Adjust to it. Attune to it. Act on it. It is only then that we realize that contemplating, digesting, as a group, our deepest tensions, is the foundation of Contemplative Activism. And, like digestion, it needs time to be fully transformative. 

Tell me who you are

Living with a group is a deep introspective experience. It makes you face the complex interplay between the I and the we. To some extent, it creates space for ego dissolution, which, if done right, can be a therapeutic and philosophical experience. Much has been said on ego dissolution in the context of psychedelic experiences. By chemically altering the perception of the self, psychedelic substances can trigger an ego dissolving experience, leading to the emergence of deep feelings of “oneness” and selflessness. But these come at a price: accepting a total loss of control. And for these experiences to be meaningful and transformative, practitioners have long described the primordial importance of the contextual “(mind)set and setting” within which the experience occurs.

The Sympoiesis residency’s set and setting was crafted to provide a slow, contemplative ego dissolution within the group. The monastic practices it borrowed from seem to have been specifically designed to optimize for the duration of the experience: minimizing the unexpected perturbations, maximizing the collective d(tr)ance. Removing unnecessary words, judgements, or feedbacks. Becoming merely mirrors to each others’ projections, and fostering gratefulness to only shine back the light, and not the darkness.

The two last practices of the residency provided an intensive dive into the depth of ego dissolution. First, a conscious food day was organized by Valerie to introduce us to the strict eating practices of Zen monasteries. It was a meaningful introduction to the way that something as usual, as banal as eating, could become a place for experiencing being within a group, and beyond, an ecosystem. The way we would each gratefully serve and receive food from each other while staying aware of our own appetite and of the appetite of the others when deciding the amount we “needed” to eat; the way we would eat by directing the spoon facing our mouth to let “the universe” nourish us and not feel like our own self was guiding the motion; the way we would give some of the warm water used to wash our bowls back to nature, thereby feeling like being “just a bowl” ourselves, an impermanent place of passage; or the way we would silently, conscientiously eat, letting our self expand and contemplate the whole path of events that led to this very moment; all these gave a more vivid meaning to the milder version that had been implemented in the previous weeks and had formed the basis for us forging a unit.

Finally, on the last Saturday of the residency, an “Enlightenment Intensive” practice was organized by the core members from the CA group Carmen and Narresh. With their multiple decades of experience living within intentional communities, they had gained a “secular” wisdom of shaping group practices. The enlightenment intensive practice was an example of a methodological, almost “scientific” method for dissolving egos. What strikes at first with this practice is its apparent simplicity: facing a randomly assigned partner, you ask the question “Tell me who you are”. After contemplating what this question triggers for them, the partner answers for 5 minutes. You then exchange roles. Repeat for 40 minutes. Then change partners, and go at it again. Traditionally taking place during 3 days, we could only spend a morning on it. The 4 hours passed remarkably fast. By presenting the question as a “propositional knowing” agenda about identity, but leaving space for the contemplative “participatory knowing” of the self, the practice methodologically triggers an onion-peeling ego confrontation and, ultimately, dissolution across the group. 

Representation of Individual trajectories within the communal space, with group synchronization points highlighted spanning the spectrum of contemplative (inward) and discursive (outward) practices. Drawing by L. Bauer.

Game C

Fundamentally, the residency questioned the interplay between order and chaos, top-down and bottom-up governance, predefined structure and self-organization, and, obviously, contemplation and activism. It attempted to find the sweet spot, the intermediate position between both extremes. In music, this intermediate form of structure and structurelessness is embodied in the “jam session” format. In traditional jams, a predefined “theme” (usually a chord progression) is collectively agreed on. In turn, individuals then contribute personal improvisations, in which they take on the limelights temporarily, before surrendering back to the group. Practitioners know how deep listening as well as a seamless rotation of “power” (stronger presence in the sonic space) are key for creating optimal jamming experiences. Some bands even excel at “jam music”. For example, Snarky Puppy leverages a musical “Tenzo” (Michael League) for “holding the [musical] space” and facilitating the band coordination. Intentional communities seem to be looking for a similar optimization process and reach an “attunement” or harmony between individuals. Some thinkers have recently referred to the “rules of the game” that could naturally foster such a social equilibrium as “Game B”, as compared to the current adversarial rules of “Game A”. By leveraging contemplative practices as a means to this end, this residency might have proposed a “Game C” (for contemplation), where millennia-old monastic protocols are re-integrated and re-imagined in the hope of harmonizing groups, and hopefully society as a whole.

About Marc

Marc Santolini is a long-term research fellow and team leader at CRI research (Paris) and a visiting researcher at the Barabasi Lab (Network Science Institute at Northeastern University, Boston). He is also the co-founder of Just One Giant Lab, a nonprofit initiative aimed at developing decentralized open science challenges using smart digital tools.