We-spaces help us orient to a beautiful and crucial shift of context: we can start to notice that we belong to a greater whole than we were experiencing before. We start to notice what’s implied in this quote from German philosopher, family system therapist and culture-shaker Bert Hellinger.
What is greatest in human beings is what makes them equal to everybody else. Everything else that deviates higher or lower from what is common to all human beings makes us less. If we know this, we can develop a deep respect for every human being.
Does this make any sense to you? I know some friends who’ve scratched their heads and wondered just what it means. And it is steeped in a paradoxical quality that frequently marks Hellinger’s utterances.
“What is greatest in human beings is what makes them equal to everybody else.” This says, among other things, that our common humanity is more important than the differences between us. Our sex, status, race, income, health and looks are all trumped by our common humanity, which is to say, our personhood, our equal membership in the human family.
But this isn’t how our social systems are set up.
There our common humanity isn’t primary at all. A combination of economic status, sexual status (desirability), class, race, nationality, religion and more are at the fore. Paying attention to those is what membership in human systems seems to require of us; more than that, our being on the good side of them is how membership is maintained ongoingly. To fit in, ordinary life requires that what we pay attention to and orient ourselves moment to moment to our group belongingness.
“Moment to moment” points to the centrality of this movement in us. And talk about central, this ongoing orientation is the foundation of conscience, both good and bad. Our good conscience is what strengthens our bond to those we’re bonded with and our bad conscience is what weakens it. A thief has a bad conscience with respect to his peers if s/he passes up a golden opportunity to steal, a good conscience when good to his or her child and so on. (Hellinger, by the way, is the one most associated with the insight that conscience, the driving force behind our behavioural choices, is usually about maintaining the bonds of belonging. Others have prefigured the notion or arrived at it cognitively, but Hellinger saw it intuitively and put its centrality to work in his mode of systems therapy.)
And status is at root about maintaining our right to belong relative to the others. This monitoring of belongingness, how we’re doing relative to the group, is experienced as a subtle anxiety and watchfulness by the members, both the insiders who are winning, or the “losers” in the group with less respected positions or understandings. Because they’re subtle doesn’t mean that this anxiety and vigilance aren’t very important to us. They are!
This isn’t bad, but it is, I believe, an accurate description of how human social interaction is organized at this point in our evolutionary history.
The subtle codes for belonging to – or being excluded from – the various groups we encounter are unconsciously and almost instantaneously picked up by all humans. We know where we stand with others right away and what we need to do to belong. We note, with exquisite calibration, the precise degree of our belonging.
Of course, we don’t say this about ourselves at all for the most part, consciously or unconsciously. Our self-identity refers to independence and individualism. The evolutionary reality is that we’re so profoundly social and cooperative that we only adopt individual ways after we’ve checked that doing so strengthens our role within the groups we’re bonded with. It’s easy to see how this has served our tribal heritage and long long before that, every stage of biological evolution. Success was forged at a great cost to individuality.
Now we need that individual response and responsibility, that “conscious evolution.”
The good news is that if we’re unconsciously acting so as to maintain good graces with those we’re bonded with, the possibility exists to notice this and be at choice about changing it.
In fact, shifting this context is entirely possible, as many readers will be aware. It’s even simple in a certain sense, even if it’s not easy. Doing so has the most profound implications. I don’t think it’s too much to say that the difference for the individual is the difference between being “asleep” (in the spiritual sense) and being awake.
The ongoing maintenance of our group status is another name for “ego.”
We’re either oriented toward proving our right to belong or we’re checking for, and moving with, what’s emerging and true for us. We really can’t do both at the same time.
And “we-spaces,” are a new dispensation for being together. Although I’ve been cognitively aware of the belonging sense for some time, let me describe for you a moment when it became experientially alive. Most of us will have many such moments. The following description is from an online conversation with three colleagues in which I was describing what we call at SoulWork Commons, a HighMeadow call.
“I notice every once in a while we go into a kind of a luminous place where people step up. We’re sitting down but metaphorically, you can see them brighten up and a light go on simultaneously in myself and someone else’s eyes. It’s usually a couple of us who are noticing it together or maybe everybody. It’s the presence in the room of a new level of understanding. And so for a brief while we’re surprised by the emergence of a new level, or new grace or presence something that we’re simultaneously touched by and recognizing.
And if I look back from there, or reflect back to what’s different about that from what was before, what I notice is that what went before is a form of ritualized, at a very high level, status-maintaining and ego-maintaining. “Do I belong and do I have a full right to belong here?” It’s ourselves checking whether “do I belong or am I going to be excluded?”
And when the new thing comes in, it’s a sense of “well how could I ever not belong here in this place we’re in.” It’s a spiritual recognizing that I’m with you in a way that how could I not be with you. But prior to that, I’m in a careful, cagey, ego sense of trying to protect my turf, very subtly of course, trying to maintain my right to belong and constantly proving it by the way I talk and interact. And my observation is that that’s what we’re engaged in a great deal of the time. And what I want, my intention, is to emerge from there, and to articulate, that the unspoken thing in the room, and the unspoken thing in every room is our strong desire to maintain our sense of belonging and we spend, in my guesswork, a very great deal of our time doing that, and almost none of that getting past that to a place where we can’t not belong together.
We-spaces are where we can make the distinction between belonging to the whole, and belonging to a sub-group that, by its implicit membership rules, resists the whole.
Intentional we-spaces and groups can set up the “protocol” or guidelines for being together any number of ways so this distinction is clearer. It’s entirely possible to build the right to belong into the set up of the group; in fact, whether this is done consciously or not, the group won’t develop “we-ness” without it. “We-ness” is the sense of who we are beyond having to be concerned with the right to belong. The guidelines that shape the get-together can let us know that we as an individual will have real time and space to be ourselves, that we’ll be be listened to and “seen,” metaphorically at least. And that all others will too, just like ourselves.
When we know and, at least to some extent, bodily trust that this is so, the need to assert ourselves and prove ourselves tends to relax. We become relatively free to tune to what’s actually true and emerging in the present for us, while we’re here with each other. The need to prove ourselves isn’t so anxiously held, and in the space provided more of our natural truth comes to the fore.
This slightly anxious ego-sense of needing to maintain our right to belong is subtle and, because it’s so ever present, almost entirely invisible. It’s easiest to spot when contrasted with a time when our belonging is not dependent on the quality of our performance but rather on our being. It’s easiest when we’re pre-qualified or when we see that, as Hellinger puts it, what’s greatest in us is what makes us the same as others.
This is something that we can notice most easily and naturally when we are with others in one of the new we-spaces.