Quay Largo Home

Cover: The Zen of Global Transformation, by Nasrudin O'Shah



The Zen of Global Transformation

the story of a quest

Nasrudin O’Shah



Copyright © 2002 by Quay Largo Productions
All rights reserved

First Edition

First printing, August 2002

200 numbered and signed copies

Available from:  

The quest

The needed change will come from people with changed minds, not from people with new programs.
—Daniel Quinn, The Story of B

Seeker: How can I find the path?
Teacher: Learn to walk, and the path will find you.

For some time now I have been on a quest. This is a quest that many others are on as well, millions of them. We are all seeking answers to the same questions: What can we do to save the world from disaster? How can people learn to live in harmony with one another and with nature? How can we free ourselves from oppressive governments and institutions?

Those of us on the quest have tried many things. We have studied, written, debated, and protested. We have formed movements and political parties, published books, and we have occasionally achieved victories. But in the end, if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that the tide of history continues toward global disaster, and rushes always faster.

Like many other seekers, from time to time, I felt that I had found "the solution". In some sense I don’t think those solutions were wrong, and many of the other solutions I’ve seen would probably work as well—if only enough people would agree on one of them!

Agreement, it seems, is the Holy Grail of change. If only that mysterious Grail could be found we would have the power to do what now seems impossible. But how do we move toward agreement? What is the path? Debate doesn’t seem to work—it seems to lead only to more debate. Public education doesn’t seem to work—there are too many teachers with too many conflicting messages. The obvious paths to agreement seem to lead nowhere useful. And yet agreement, in some sense, must happen before anything else can.

Sometimes, when a long search proves fruitless, you must stop and do nothing. You must empty your mind, stop trying, and wait for some kind of inspiration. If you do this, then sometimes an answer appears that is surprisingly simple, one which has been right under your nose all the while. Suddenly you can see what you have been seeking.

I have something to share with you that is an answer and at the same time is no answer. It is everything and it is nothing. It is so simple that it would mean nothing if I simply told you what I have found. We must retrace the quest together, visiting the places where things of value can be found.

Let us move on to the first part of our quest. We are looking for the Holy Grail of agreement. Let us look in a place where reaching agreement appears to be the main theme and activity. Let us examine a group process known as Dynamic Facilitation.

Dynamic Facilitation & collaborative consensus

I continue to be impressed by the quality of people’s insight, creativity, and caring that can emerge whenever a space is held where there is sufficient listening to all voices... and how helpful it can be to have a "designated listener", so that the rest of us can be as passionate about our convictions as we would like to be, and still be heard... as well as "overhear" each other being listened to, and begin to find common ground... and, of course, we need lots of people who are able to be "designated listeners", so we can all take turns.... it seems so simple a message.
—Rosa Zubizarreta, session facilitator

Rosa Zubizarreta practices and teaches something called Dynamic Facilitation, or DF. DF is a particular approach to facilitation, one that encourages people to come as they are, with all of their thoughts and feelings and pet solutions. The process is not particularly demanding on the participants, but it is particularly demanding on the facilitator, who needs to be able to listen deeply, take all sides, and trust the group and the process.

Success in DF is measured both by the outcomes that emerge, and by the quality of the conversation itself. Are participants addressing real issues, rather than superficial ones? Are people being fully heard? Are people being creative?

A typical group may need three or four sessions, of two to three hours each, in order to experience a significant breakthrough. Breakthroughs often involve the solution to some shared problem—a solution that all participants are completely excited about, and energized to put into action—since they see it as their solution. Typically the participants are from diverse backgrounds, with differing beliefs and conflicting perceived interests—and with strong ideas about how the problem should or should not be solved.

The facilitator acts as a neutral designated listener. Rosa describes the role this way:

"The role of the facilitator, especially in the beginning stages, is to step in between any emerging ‘debates’ and redirect the energy toward the facilitator. We do not encourage ‘debates’, but do encourage everyone to speak their mind fully and exhaustively to the facilitator. By the way, this is very similar to many indigenous conflict-resolution practices.

"The facilitator encourages everyone to speak their mind fully, including their misgivings and concerns about the solutions proposed by other participants. As dedicated listener, the facilitator makes sure each speaker feels heard, often by restating what was said to make sure that he or she has understood, as well as by recording each participant’s contributions and posting it in on the wall for all to see."

People generally appreciate the opportunity to speak their mind at length, while actually being listened to. However, as all of the diverse perspectives that are present in the group are drawn out and begin to cover the walls, often a feeling of "We’re not getting anywhere." emerges. An empty, quiet space comes into existence. Everything has been said, everything has been heard, and no one sees any sense in beating his or her own drum yet again.

From this empty space a new kind of energy spontaneously emerges. People are looking not just at their own perspectives. They themselves have been fully heard, which has allowed them to begin to "overhear" one another as each person in turn has directed their comments to the facilitator. Now, as participants take in all of the various perspectives posted on the walls, they begin to realize that some new creative approaches need to be taken that will somehow begin to address all (or at least many) of these various perspectives.

First one person gets creative, and offers what they feel might be a synthesis. Then another person builds on that, or proposes a different synthesis. This all happens quite naturally, without any facilitator urging. Entrenched positions fade, as people naturally realize the need for new and creative alternatives, and a process of collective problem solving begins.

What begins to happen after a while, spontaneously, is that people begin to see connections and they begin to articulate them. "What if we used part of his idea and combined it with part of hers?" This kind of energy uncovers hidden synergy among ideas, but it does something else of more lasting value. It builds and nourishes a sense of effective community collaboration.

We find that the individuals, despite all their disagreement and divisiveness, have transformed into a temporary collaborative community. They have set aside their preoccupation with their disagreement, and have learned to work together to find solutions that everyone is willing to live with. They’ve learned to trust one another and to listen to one another. They’ve learned to see one another as full human beings, beyond stereotypes.

In the end, as if by magic, a solution begins to emerge which is far more than merely acceptable to everyone. It is a solution that participants prefer to their own original solutions—it is a solution that everyone is excited about. This excitement is the trademark of this kind of process.

There are many processes that use the name consensus but which are nothing like what we have been talking about here. The WTO, for example, reaches its decisions on a consensus basis—to the extent that any delegate can block a measure by formally dissenting. But no creative problem solving occurs at the WTO. The introduced measures are drafted in advance by major-nation cliques, and the debate is about whether to accept them as is, or whether to delay progress until the next meeting. This process may lead to begrudging assent, but it does not produce solutions that meet the concerns of all the participants. Furthermore, no sense of community is created. Instead of designated listener, the meetings are chaired by a gavel-wielding discussion manipulator.

At the local level, many attempts have been made to include citizen participation in policy formation, and many of these try to include some form of consensus. But typically the focus is directly on the problem solving, and there is little understanding of the need to reach genuine community before truly effective problem solving can begin. Politeness, or professionalism if you will, tends to keep people in their original positions, and compromise is more likely to be the outcome than synergy. Besides, these citizen-government sessions tend to be spread over time, with isolated meetings fitting into busy schedules. Such a session environment cannot produce the kind of intense shared experience that is essential to the functioning of a DF session.

I will be using the phrase collaborative consensus to refer to any process which functions along the general lines of DF, and which leads to the same kind of collaborative problem solving and community experience. Let us next seek to understand how such processes might contribute to our quest for the Holy Grail of agreement.

Agreement—but what kind?

Consensus does not mean agreement. It means we create a forum where all voices can be heard and we can think creatively rather than dualistically about how to reconcile our different needs and visions.
—Starhawk, Lessons from Seattle and Washington D.C.

In one sense a collaborative consensus session is all about agreement. It is about agreement on a solution to the problem at hand. That kind of agreement is achieved in these sessions and is the purpose of the sessions. But in a deeper sense the sessions are not at all about agreement.

Recall that participants may be deeply divided by their conflicting beliefs and perceived interests. The session must overcome these differences in order for trust and community to develop, and for problem solving to be possible. But those differences are not overcome by agreement. That attempt always fails, leading to a frustrating but necessary giving up. The differences are instead overcome by experiencing that it is possible to go forward despite those differences.

The solution to disagreement is not agreement, but something else. That something else is in a different space than agree vs. disagree. It is in the space of working together. People can build a barn together even if they don’t believe in the same things. It’s really not that surprising when you think about it.

In terms of our quest, what we are really seeking is a way to agree on solutions to the world’s problems. It seems that a direct search for agreement itself is not the right path—it turns out to be unattainable. Consensus teaches us that the result we seek might be better achieved by searching instead for a way to create community.

Consensus sessions create a temporary community space, and in that space agreement on solutions becomes attainable. If we can find a way to create community spaces that last over time, and which involve larger numbers of people, then we might begin making progress toward the kind agreement we truly need—agreement on how to deal with our problems.

Our quest has now become a search for ways to build community. As the next step on this quest let us refresh our understanding of what motivates our quest. What is it about the world that is leading us to disaster? Why do so many of us seek ways to bring about fundamental changes?

Modern societies

Our modern societies are organized around two basic principles: hierarchy and win-lose competition.

Private and public institutions are organized as hierarchies and the major institutional decisions are the realm of central headquarters. It is difficult even to imagine anything very different. A corporation or a government needs to solve its problems with the big picture in mind, and all the big pictures can be dealt with if they are collected together at headquarters. There seems almost to be a law of nature about centralized hierarchy since everything seems to work that way.

Competition in our societies is all pervasive. The whole society is set up as an adversarial machine. We seek knowledge by competing with other students. We advance in our careers by outdoing our co-workers. Success in business is defined in terms of competitiveness. We seek truth and justice by setting up a competition between two professional adversaries (lawyers) whose job is to out-perform the other in swaying a jury. We choose those leaders who compete best at telling us what we want to hear. Our nation’s laws are decided in a competitive forum where one wins by being good at the game of trading favors and fooling the public.

A good metaphor for our adversarial society is an old rhyme. "The big fish eat the little fish, and chew on’em and bite’em. The little fish eat the littler fish, and so ad infinitum." Us humans are the infinitum. We are the bottom of the food chain. We are small mammals who scurry around the Jurassic underbrush, while the ground trembles under the weight of mighty giants. We are lucky if we avoid getting stepped on or gobbled up by one giant institution or the other. Our own competitive energy, if we can muster any, is used up trying to get our share of the scraps that filter down to the underbrush. I find it strange that so many people refer to these societies as democracies, or as bastions of freedom.

The masters make the rules, for the wise men and the fools.
—Bob Dylan

There is only one place in our societies where competition is not King, and that place is at the top of the hierarchies. Those with real power and money have learned that it makes more sense to run things for mutual benefit than to vie for marginal advantage among equal adversaries. Oil companies do better by parceling out marketing territories (or merging) than they would by competing on price. The richest nations no longer struggle against one another, but have learned to collaborate in the exploitation of the weaker countries.

Although competition rules the game for the smaller fish, the biggest corporations find more leverage in gaming the rules. Change the regulations, pump in some government subsidies or contracts, arrange for a troublesome third-world leader to be ousted by a coup, and so on. And if you look at the boards of the biggest corporations, you keep running across the same names over and over again. And many of those you will recognize as past or present players in high government circles.

If you look the top, where the hierarchies meet, you find an elite community—a community where common interests are recognized and mutual benefit is achieved through collaboration. Globalization brings this community out into the open. No longer do they need to hide in the shadows, pulling the strings of their lobbying networks and beholden politicians. Now they have a place (the WTO) where only they are invited and where they can write the rules however they want.

While the elites act as a community, the rest of are divided by competition and by our beliefs. Not only do elites have the power, but they also have the collective self-awareness to maintain that power as circumstances change. We not only lack power, but we—the people—do not have community and thus self-aware action on our part has no meaning. We cannot do anything because we do not exist as a self-aware entity that can act and respond.

In an ironic sense, we can take encouragement from the fact that the elites have succeeded in achieving community. They have proven that it is possible. The number of people involved is considerable (and variable), they are spread around the globe, they have diverse interests and beliefs, and they certainly never all get together in one place. And yet they demonstrate effective community coherence nonetheless. It can happen.

Community at the top has been achieved. Is community from below achievable? It may not be achievable. In that case we are likely to be oppressed by hierarchies for the rest of history. This quest is about seeking escape from that future. Let us persist.

A moment ago we redefined our quest as a search for ways to create community. From what we’ve seen about modern societies, we need to expand our objective. Creating communities here and there is a start, but to change society we need something more. We need a community from below of some considerable scope. Our community needs to become as inclusive and widespread as it can possibly be. When we the people really means something, then we can begin agreeing on how to deal with the problems we face. Our quest is now focused on achieving society as community, an achievement that would give real meaning to we the people.

One of the problems that we the people would need to deal with eventually is the current hierarchical regime itself. As long as that elite-controlled regime holds on to power, our society as community could not do much to solve our other problems.

Let us review how people have tried to displace powerful regimes in the past.

Movements and revolutions

A movement is an example of a community from below. It is made up of people who have somehow gotten beyond their differences, and have chosen a way to work together to solve an important problem that affects all of them. The solution they have chosen is to actively promote some agenda of changes for society, some program for society.

If the program is one that finds favor in elite circles, then the movement does not have a very difficult task. Politicians will rush forward in support of the agenda, hoping to gain the votes of the movement members. Those politicians will be likely to succeed in implementing significant portions of the program, since they would enjoy support in elite circles. This kind of movement is of little interest to our quest. It obviously does little to disturb the hierarchical regime. We are interested only in movements that are opposed by the regime.

In the face of elite opposition, a movement typically recruits as many members as possible, so as to increase its political leverage. If its program calls for major changes which compromise elite interests, then the movement must become a mass movement in order to have any hope of success. This is the kind of movement that is of interest to us on the quest.

The elite community would seek to discourage such a movement in order to avoid political interference with its interests. The regime might try to ignore the movement and hope it goes away. Or the regime might implement some changes of its own which appear to be similar to the movement’s program, and which might take some of the wind out of its sails. If such tactics succeed, then the movement is of little consequence.

But suppose the movement persists despite elite counter-moves, and suppose it becomes increasingly effective in gaining support for its program. In that case the regime must make a choice. It can either seek to suppress the movement, or it can accept the movement as a player in the game of competitive policy formation.

The American civil rights movement shows an example of being accepted as a player. Local Southern elites had tried suppression, but they were unable to stop the movement that way. When the suppression became too politically embarrassing to national elites, those higher-up elites stepped in and took over—using armed troops in some cases. The national elites decided that acceptance as a player was the overall best way to deal with the civil rights movement and the political headaches it was causing for the regime. An historic civil rights bill was passed, and the role of racial minorities in the adversarial American social hierarchy was to some degree shifted toward greater equality.

Such a movement is generally considered to be a success. At a program level it is. But such a movement does nothing to alter the hierarchical nature of society, nor does it challenge the hegemony of the elite community. Neither does it lead to the creation of a lasting community from below. What had been an empowered movement community transforms into yet another special interest group lobbying for advantage in the hierarchical power games.

If a movement is successfully suppressed, or if it is eventually accepted as a player in politics, then it is of no interest to our quest. In both of these cases the hierarchical, adversarial system continues essentially unchanged, and the elite community remains in control.

The only movements that might be of interest are those whose programs cannot be accepted by the regime— programs which include radical elements, which could only undermine the structure of elite control. If such a movement persists despite suppression, and if it gains sufficient following, then it will sooner or later find itself in direct confrontation with the elite community itself. The issue will no be longer the program, but rather who gets to decide.

If the movement persists effectively beyond this point, then it becomes a revolutionary movement. Among movements, only a revolutionary movement has any possibility of bringing about the kind of social transformation our quest is seeking.

And there have been revolutionary movements that have achieved victory. Whole populations have succeeded in achieving community as a movement. Such movements have by one means or another displaced powerful ruling elites. We the people came into existence and carried out a successful revolutionary project. Such an event gave birth to the USA, to the French Republic, to the Soviet Union, and there are many other examples.

But in all these cases we somehow ended up again with a hierarchical power structure, with an elite in charge—and for some reason we the people faded away. Why is this?

The problem with a revolutionary movement is the source of the binding energy of we the people as a community. The community comes together because everyone agrees that the radical program needs to be implemented. Later the agreement is expanded—the regime must be replaced. Out of that agreement, the community works together successfully to replace the regime and begin the implementation of their program.

The community has now completed its agreed task. Those who are so motivated can see to the further implementation of the program. The rest of we the people can go back home and get on with life. The achievement of victory leads automatically to the fading away of we the people.

Those who are motivated to complete the implementation are precisely the kind of people who seek power. The fading of we the people creates a power vacuum, and these power seekers soon create new hierarchical institutions and become a new ruling elite. That seems to be how it has always turned out, and there is no reason to see why it would happen differently in the future. A revolutionary movement cannot be the means of achieving the kind of social transformation we are seeking.

We learn from these revolutions that whole populations are capable of becoming a community even in the face of elite opposition. And we learn that such a community can displace those elites from power. Those are very useful facts, and we can take courage from them. But we also learn that programs and taking power cannot be the unifying force for the community we would like to see. Those kinds of communities do not persist after victory, and therefore leave us right back where we started.

This puts us in a dilemma. Obviously you can’t get rid of elite rule unless you try to get rid of elite rule. And obviously, the way to try is to get everyone together and try as a community—as a movement that can displace the regime. Right? But we know this path cannot work. We cannot succeed without trying, and if we try we won’t succeed!

There is an escape from this dilemma. But before we try to unravel it there are other things we need to take a look at. We have been talking about Community vs. Hierarchy. Let us spend a few moments reviewing the history of that struggle.

Community vs. Hierarchy—an age-old struggle

Back before agriculture, community-tribal consensus was all there was. Hunter-gathering groups were relatively small, and everyone had to work together to survive. With perhaps rare exceptions all societies were egalitarian, consensus-governed, and autonomous from all other societies. That’s how it was for hundreds of thousands of years, as long as Homo sapiens existed and had language to talk about problems and choices.

Tribes typically had warriors, even though tribes didn’t have any reason to conquer one another. Just as antelopes defend their territories with antler rattling, so tribes maintained their territories (fixed or nomadic) by spear rattling and occasional raids. These raids were harmless to the tribes as a whole, though perhaps fatal to a few of the more heroic-minded warriors on either side.

When agriculture came along, all this changed. The more aggressive tribes with the more ferocious warriors now had a new mission for those warriors: Capture the neighboring tribe and make them till the soil for us from now on. Agriculture made systematic exploitation of other people economically feasible.

Perhaps only a few tribes chose the exploitation path at first, but a few was enough to begin a seemingly irreversible process. Every region with agriculture went the route of chiefs, kings, and emperors. And until relatively recent times there was always an absolute ruler at the top and a slave-class at the bottom.

A bit earlier we were looking at consensus as a tool that might help us build community. And community is the treasure that might help us overcome elite rule. It seems we are contemplating the revival of an age-old struggle—that between hierarchy on the one hand, and community consensus on the other.

Up until about 10,000 years ago consensus and community reigned supreme, unchallenged. Hierarchy then struck all at once like a lion on a defenseless lamb.

Ever since then the struggle has continued, and always hierarchy has won the lion’s share of battles. Rome called the struggle taming the barbarians. The British Empire called it civilizing the natives. The USA has called it spreading democracy, and the most recent hierarchy calls it bringing the benefits of the free market. Whole populations were annihilated in North America and Australia as part of this ongoing struggle, and today many peoples of the third world find themselves under similar threat.

Although the lion has grown ever stronger and more predatory through the centuries, we can nonetheless take some encouragement from these observations.

We know that humanity, community, and consensus are well suited to one another—the combination dominated 99% of humanity’s existence. During that time humanity lived for the most part in harmony with nature—and without devastating warfare. It is encouraging to know that in seeking community we are aspiring not to a strange and unfamiliar land, but instead are thinking about how we might return home to our roots—in a spiritual sense, not in the hunter-gatherer sense.

Let us return now to our dilemma. How can we overcome elite rule if trying to do so cannot succeed?

Zen—achieving without trying

In Zen the goal is to perceive directly the full scope of reality, an experience which is called enlightenment. Those who have taken the journey report that their experience cannot be communicated in words. And indeed the practice of Zen involves neither talking about reality, speculating about reality, nor even reporting on "reality experienced". The practice is to sit and do nothing.

It turns out that this practice—doing nothing persistently and regularly in a certain way—automatically generates certain kinds of mental activity and results. One might say the practice is about how to walk correctly. Those who learn to walk correctly are somehow always drawn toward the path they seek.

This teaches something about effort and results, and how they relate to one another. In our competitive modern societies we have a single paradigm about how to achieve goals. When we want to achieve a goal, we do so by focusing our thinking and our planning around that goal. It is obvious to us that you move toward something by trying to move toward it.

Zen teaches us that some goals can only be approached in a more indirect way. Zen teaches us that sometimes it is necessary to focus elsewhere than your goal in order to move toward it. It also suggests that elsewhere does not mean anywhere. There may be a very specific right focus for a particular goal, and that right focus may be quite unrelated to the goal.

This observation offers us encouragement in the face of our dilemma. We saw that trying to overcome elite rule (movement or revolution) could not succeed at that goal. Evidently this goal can only be achieved in some other way. Zen shows us that other ways can sometimes be found.

We are looking for a practice that moves toward universal community, but which is energized by something other than struggling against the regime. We need to learn a way to walk that leads us to community and that will lead us on beyond that—helping us to use that community to build the kind of world we want and deserve. A world that connects us somehow back to the primordial consensus world we enjoyed before the lamb succumbed to the lion.

Let us now return to our examination of collaborative consensus sessions, and consider what kind of outcomes they might be capable of producing.

Collaborative consensus and personal transformation

At first I thought of dynamic facilitation as a little tool. Then it became a little window or door. And the next thing I knew I saw it was a whole new universe...
—Elliot Shuford, activist facilitator

We learned earlier that effective problem solving occurs in a session only after a collaborative community space has been established. In reaching the community space, every person in the room needs to get beyond their differences with everyone else. Not only that, but they go through the experience of accepting all the others as valid real people, whose ideas and concerns are worth listening to. And beyond that they go through the experience of collaborating effectively with those people and, finding solutions to problems—which at first seemed like win-lose adversarial quagmires.

Such an experience can only challenge many of the assumptions and paradigms of anyone raised in our adversarial societies. Consider, for example, the extent to which we blame other groups in society for the ills that afflict us. In the USA, conservatives are convinced that liberals control big government and the media, and that they use those to impose liberal values on everyone else. "Liberals are the cause of the problems and they are the enemy."

Liberals on the other hand see everything being controlled by conservatives and right-wingers. Neoliberal economics, hawks running foreign policy, all aided by a corporate-controlled media. "How right wing can you get? Conservatives and their voting choices are the problem and they are the enemy."

There are two points worth noting here. The first is that neither liberals nor conservatives would agree with the characterizations being made about them by the other side—and for good reason. The second is that both are really expressing the same concern—dissatisfaction with the loss of liberty and empowerment imposed on them by centralized, unresponsive institutions. Each side blames the other for the predicament, and each has over-simplified beliefs about the other which reinforce the blaming attitude.

Now let’s suppose that a session is held which includes liberals and conservatives among its participants. If the session is successful, then all the participants will get past their difference and learn to respect one another’s concerns. That’s how they get through to that community space where collaborative problem solving happens.

This experience—learning to respect the concerns of the enemy—can only undermine many of the assumptions and prejudices the various participants came in with. "Is that other really an enemy? If not, then who do I blame for society’s problems?"

Indeed one of the central paradigms of our society is called into question—that all things must be adversarial. We assume that when conflict is resolved, someone must win and someone else must lose. In the session, one learns that everyone can come out ahead. We assume that one side’s agenda or the other must be selected. In the session one learns that a more creative agenda that satisfies both sides may be attainable. The experience of the session expands the participants’ understanding of how problems can be solved, and how people can work together.

There are two kinds of mind changing that occur in one of these sessions. In the process of reaching agreement on a solution, people change their beliefs about what kind of solution is possible. And out of the collaborative, community experience they change their understanding of problem solving and working with others.

The first kind of mind changing is productive at the program level. The second kind of mind changing is transformational for the participant. With a new understanding, the functioning of the participant’s mind changes. He or she is learning to approach problems and other people from a new perspective, with new paradigms.

We may be in a position now to make sense of Quinn’s cryptic message, "The needed change will come from people with changed minds, not from people with new programs." By "changed minds", perhaps Quinn means minds that are changed in how they function, rather than minds with changed beliefs. That would be consistent with his dismissal of "programs", which happen at the level of changed beliefs.

Indeed, with "changed minds", Quinn may be thinking about precisely the kind of transformation that occurs in our sessions. When he says, "needed change" he is talking about ridding society of what he calls "the taker myth". That myth is equivalent, more or less, to the paradigms of hierarchy and competition that dominate our modern societies. Changed minds—minds that approach people and problems from a collaborative perspective—may indeed have the potential to make inroads against "the taker myth".

In any case, the mind changing that occurs in these sessions increases people’s ability to participate in a collaborative community space, and it awakens them to the potential benefits of such a space. Let us continue with our investigation of collaborative consensus and see if there may be some way to create community spaces for these changed minds to participate in.

Collaborative consensus and community empowerment

Let us now apply collaborative consensus to physical communities, the kind that have a geographical location and are made up of neighborhoods. Let us consider sessions where all the participants come from the same community, and where the problem being solved is of importance to the whole community. Let us see what additional outcomes might be expected from such a session. Consider this scenario:

Some community has a problem which is vexing the community and which is raising the temperature among the interest groups in the community. Someone sets up a collaborative consensus session with a dozen or so people from all different parts of the community. Their session is successful, resulting in a proposed solution that finds wide acceptance in the community. The community implements the solution (perhaps with or perhaps without the cooperation of City Hall) and people are generally happy with the result.

At level 1, the program level, the session agrees on a solution—and in these kinds of sessions, that solution is likely to be one that makes a good deal of sense. This is an important outcome. It improves the community, and it helps spread an appreciation for the value of our session process.

At level 2, the personal level, each participant goes through a transformation, of one degree or another, leaving them more capable of participating in community spaces in the future.

At level 3, the community level, something very important begins to happen. Let’s re-frame our scenario as a community experience:

The community has a seemingly intractable problem. A few of the people get together and solve the problem. The solution takes into account the whole range of community interests. The solution is implemented and it functions reasonably well.

After such an episode, the people in the community deserve to feel proud of themselves. Here was a problem that civic officials and the institutional world were not able to deal with. The community itself dealt with it instead, with very little bother and overhead.

Now suppose a community were to go through this experience two or three times, with different problems. What is likely to emerge is a sense of community empowerment—a sense of community existing and community as actor. We the people begins to awake, at least at the local level.

Such a process would be very likely to snowball. As a sense of community develops, there would be increased enthusiasm for tackling additional problems, and more difficult problems. And the more successful the program outcomes of the sessions, the more demand would be created for further sessions.

Before community exists, the non-program, transformational outcomes are all-important. Once community emerges, then what that community does is what matters. By choosing which problems to solve, and by finding consensus solutions, the community is able to develop a community sense of priorities, and a community vision of how the community might be improved. The program outcomes are now all-important.

As this community sense and vision grows solid, we are seeing the emergence of a fully awake we the people, at the local level. The community is now aware of itself, it knows how to deal collectively with problems, and it is developing a sense of direction, an agenda. We, as a local community, are ready to become a player in society. Let us next consider what this player might do, and what kind of obstacles might be encountered.

Empowered community and the transformation of society

Any attempt to deal with local problems on a regular basis would soon run into obstacles that are beyond the control of the community. Perhaps a major factory is closing down, a river is polluted, or local government is frustrating the effectiveness of the emerging community. We could expect neighboring communities to begin talking to one another and thinking about how they might collaborate in addressing problems that affect all of them.

And for this kind of regional "talking" and "thinking" a collaborative consensus session is the ideal vehicle. A few participants, or delegates, can be chosen from each of the communities involved. Conflicts and disagreements would arise, out of differences in interests and perspectives among the communities. In the course of a successful session these would be overcome, and creative opportunities for collaboration would be identified that all the communities could support with enthusiasm.

We can think of a region as being a community of communities. It seems only natural that we would apply our consensus tool to this larger community, in the same way it was applied to the smaller communities. And again we can expect the emergence of community identity, now on a wider scale. And after that would emerge a sense of priorities and direction, again on a wider scale.

It seems that small community breeds larger community, at least in the presence of consensus as a catalyst. A transformed rhyme suggests itself: "Little community breeds big community, and the people does enlighten. Big community breeds bigger community, and so ad infinitum." By employing the same consensus process, to larger and larger scale communities, we can see how society as community might become attainable. We the people—on the scale of a whole society—is not beyond the realm of possibility by means of this practice.

Let’s suppose that a society-wide community does begin to emerge. It would not take us long to realize that our greatest shared problem is the elite regime itself. There is little we could do as a society to solve our biggest problems, as long as the regime continues to run things for its own narrow benefit. Inevitably, the emerging we the people would begin thinking about how this obstacle might be overcome.

Perhaps the regime could be displaced simply through the ballot box. If the whole society were to vote for an agreed slate of candidates, then government would be overnight transformed. The same institutions would be there, but there would now be a voice of the people for them to listen to, and elected officials who took listening seriously. The role of government would be to administer those programs that we the people have agreed on. On paper, that’s precisely what our constitutions promise, but it has never been achieved because we the people have not been around to participate.

Perhaps the engagement with the elite regime would be more difficult. We do know however, from the experience of revolutions, that when whole populations achieve community, established regimes can be displaced.

When a revolutionary movement achieves victory, a fatal power vacuum always flaws the outcome. In our case however, no such vacuum emerges. We the people have not completed our mission—we have simply removed a major obstacle from our path.

Imagine the breakthroughs that would occur when a self-aware society is able to apply its problem-solving capacity to fundamental issues like sustainability, transport systems, health care, economics, and world peace. We cannot even imagine the vistas that would open. The scale of the cultural renaissance would be awesome.

We have reached the end of our quest. We have arrived at the fabled end of the rainbow. If events were to unfold as we have imagined, society would be totally transformed and humanity would be on the road to achieving its full potential—a potential beyond our imagining.

We cannot be certain that these things will happen. We do not know that the widespread use of consensus sessions can produce results along these lines. What the quest has shown us is that there may be a path out of our predicament, and the quest tells us what walk we need to learn if we hope to follow that path. We have little to lose by trying this walk, and possibly a world to gain. Let’s now take a final look at the walk—the Zen-like practice.

Global transformation as a Zen practice

In Zen there is the practice and there is the goal. The practice is dead simple and the goal cannot even be described. If you try to reach the goal directly, you do not make progress. If you simply do the practice, persistently, you are very likely to reach the goal. Your proper focus of attention is the practice. The attainment of the goal happens automatically. You have no control over what the goal turns out to be. It will be whatever it is.

According to what we’ve learned on our quest, the practice appropriate for social transformation is the carrying out of collaborative consensus sessions dealing with divisive problems in communities. The goal is somewhere in the direction of an empowered global society, but it cannot be described. Zen’s goal cannot be described because it is ineffable—it cannot be expressed in words. The nature of transformed society cannot be described because the outcome is in the future. It remains to be experienced, and it will certainly bring surprises with it.

In the end this quest has only one thing to suggest. Somehow arrange for these sessions to happen regularly and persistently. That is the practice. That is walking correctly.

The people who do the arranging and who participate do not need to have any particular vision of the future. They do not need to know about this quest story. Indeed, I need not have gone on this quest nor told its story. Those who carry out the practice may call it by another name and may have their own visions and theories about what’s going on. None of that matters. The only important thing is doing the practicedoing the sessions. It doesn’t matter what problems are being solved, and it doesn’t matter what the facilitators believe. If the practice happens, persistently, we may be able to go where we are capable of going. Hopefully, the feeling along the way will be one of going home, of returning to our roots.

I’ll see you there, some sunny day.

May the practice begin.



About the author

Don Juan taught Castenada that a warrior leaves his personal history behind. In that same spirit, Nasrudin prefers not to elaborate on his own personal history. He tells us this much... most of his life was spent working for the hierarchies, exchanging his time and talents for the currency of the realm. He left all that late in life, and began his quest. His efforts to find a path to transformation were focused always on "agreement" and on "programs". No matter how hard he tried, no matter how clever his programs, agreement remained always elusive—like the end of a rainbow. But by persisting in those efforts, he was led through the different lessons that make up the quest story.

One day, as he was pursuing his usual objectives, all those separate lessons suddenly came together. A new understanding emerged that was greater than the sum of its parts. Nasrudin found himself with a changed mind, and that changed mind knows that Nasrudin must shift his own personal path. Where that will lead he has yet to discover. Sharing this quest story has been the first step.


The cover design is by Theis Eljas.

Rosa Zubizarreta contributed extensively to the material on Dynamic Facilitation.

Diana Morley improved the text considerably as copy-editor.

Janet McFarland inspired the book by asking just the right questions, at just the right time.

Daniel Quinn helped the author to see humanity in a new light.

Jim Fadiman taught the author to persevere in the quest.

Quay Largo Home     Top of book