We-Space: Wired Together

Otto Scharmer’s Theory U (and Presencing Institute) shed further light on how We-Space is a presencing activity and a practice for the demands of our times. According to Scharmer (though he does not use the term itself), the cultivation of We-Space is not simply adding another app, another bauble to horizontalize your home page. It represents a full operating system upgrade. Developing versatility in We-Space is a vertical awakening of courage, compassion and curiosity, aligning the personal system to address and reverse the systemic absencing characterized by the current atmosphere of extreme, increasingly sophisticated and corrupt sowing of doubt, fear, hatred, fanaticism and polarization for the aggrandizement of a few.

Scharmer’s model moves from presencing to crystallization (of principles) to co-creating….from imagination to testing to codification. In such a process, the internal work of Circling and all the different models of We-Space promoting presencing must eventually coalesce and turn outward either by deliberately propagating the principles of We-Space in larger social contexts such as schools, workplaces and deliberative bodies or by depending on individuals to act ad hoc, taking their personal practices into  collective settings with other like-minded individuals.

Cultivating, or presencing in Self, is to descend into our deeper capacities, creative gifts, and at the same time soften the boundaries of identity, building a capacity to live in the zone of a more diffuse, transitional and fluid self. Exploring such deeper personal capacities by presencing in Self is to connect more directly with the natural context, the collective intelligence of the natural systems in which we live and grow.

Now, whenever I turn my attention to my internal space, and particularly in collective settings, I take for granted that however I feel inside is to some degree an experience of the collective field. Thus, “knowing” oneself, reinforcing or improving a distinct and separate identity, is only half of the learning process. The other half is to then look beyond that identity. We-Space practice takes me into a rich realm in which I can observe the micro-field of self in a dynamic flow with the macro field of the collective. In so doing, I become more acutely aware of the paradox of self, the ambiguity of my boundaries, where transitory concerns such as idiosyncratic waves of sensory and emotional activity can temporarily yield to a deeper experience of the ocean of energy in which we are all immersed.

As Rick Hanson noted in Buddha’s Brain, neurophysiology tells us “Neurons that fire together wire together.” In an individual brain, patterns of identical responses to identical stimuli literally become like x-country tracks in snow. We want to follow them because someone has been there before. Studies on the long term effects of contemplative practice indicate we can literally interrupt and re-program our responses by the deliberate practice of mindfulness, deepening and smoothing tracks in the brain that form the material analog of equanimity, generosity, compassion, gratitude, even courage.

The reverse is also true: neurons that are wired together will fire together in response patterns. The most common and obvious are the autonomic responses of fight or flight—a tried and true survival mechanism—but also the more nuanced long-term subtle regeneration of responses to the messaging of scarcity, nativism, tribalism, ego and ethno-centrism. Since we are now (in the nick of time?) gradually embodying the reality of individuals co-extensive with each other and all life, the existence of a group field, quantum phenomena, collective intelligence, the influence of culture in programming the brain function of the individual becomes as plausible as a belief in the role of nature.

In that regard, we might well acknowledge the influence of generations of ancestors, both human and non-human, being present in our immediate communications. Our ancestors are part of our bodies. We are endowed with their consciousness and their karma and must assimilate it all, digest it–experiencing our multi-generational patterns–to fully experience who we are and what is our path.

From the standpoint of collective experience, going all the way back to tribal society, what was assumed and learned and passed on from one generation to the next was our place in the group. One’s personal ego was at times subsumed to the group ethic. Under these conditions, responses, and thus brain patterning, would follow the community rules superimposed on the natural substrate. One’s relations would be to the earth, the tribe and the family. When the rule-setters, leaders and those who mediated the seen and the unseen, form and the formless, acted to enforce the rules, everyone followed because they were already patterned (wired?) to respond within a limited field of options.

Likewise, in a post-tribal world fractured and dissolved, patterning continues to undergo transformation. Now, in a post-modern, post-industrial world, family, cultural and, to an extent, tribal patterning remains. Individual and collective efforts to overcome largely unconscious patterning at the familial and tribal level bring us up against powerful primitive and deep patterning at the individual level as well as the remains of group-triggers that govern collective memory, intelligence and response patterns.

We live and function in an impossibly complex neural soup of ideologies, allegiances, survival mechanisms, structures of authority, reciprocity and group consciousness. While social media functions to connect people, spontaneously forming and assuming tribal identities, it is also the medium of pandemic attention-seeking behavior, a narcissistic inversion of belonging. All of it together is The Story of Us, however we may define Us (either as a microcosmic “particle” or as a macrocosmic “wave”). But it’s not just an idea or mere mythology. It is Us, which is a clue to how difficult it is to change the Story, regardless of the scale of one’s attention/intention.

We-Space, as a “direct, distributed and dialogic” practice, is an evolutionary response to both the psychic need for belonging and a discovery of the fundamental nature of our relationship. It is a vehicle of transition from, in Scharmer’s words, ego- to eco-consciousness. Since the human body is co-extensive with the earth body, the more we examine and integrate emotional experience, sensation, thought and action, the more we connect with a universal view. The more the boundaries between inner and outer experience become transparent, fall away or dissolve into a unitary non-dual view, the more we feel our way into the subtle body we all inhabit.

Becoming conversant in the micro-evolutionary flow from purely subjective experience to the communion of We-Space, with occasional healing bursts of actually feeling others from the inside, what Michael Brabant calls “collective somatic intuition,” is the essence of what Scharmer calls vertical literacy.


We-Space: Locating Self

In the midst of Circling, the ethic of immersion into a deepening group process, cycling more and more into the present moment, the boundaries of Self get murky and less defined–whether we like it or not.  Expressions from any individual are often tentative, as if venturing forth from the safety of one’s personal domain carries unknown risks. Clinging to separate identities in an atmosphere of implied intentional dissolution turns out to be more or less slippery, at times even counterproductive. But that’s the idea. Let go of your preoccupation with Self and feel your way into the collective dynamic. Tricky. Challenging. Murky. Also an invitation to unearth what for some may be a profound discomfort.

The true nature of our relations to each other and the world emerge in toppled assumptions, unexpected curves along the path of unwinding layers of personality, guarding, looking for a “true” self in relationship or imagining there is anything solid to “conclusions” or even “lessons.” One is faced with realizing that while we might have momentary or even tenacious fantasies of being in the center of our own worlds, the truth is that everyone else is also in their own center…or at least wrestling with its unique parameters, its anchors, imputing its indelible nature.

Yet the fantasy of a center is just that, an illusion.

Everything is moving. Nothing is truly resolved, despite reflexive reification to satisfy our longing for certainty. Trying to pin anything down is a fool’s errand, certain to lead to confusion and dissatisfaction. We are perpetually in the middle. Yet also, at any moment, the truth of Self, hovering like a condor on warm updrafts, swoops to the front of awareness, perhaps even unexpectedly erupting into familiar, old or even novel emotional states including fear, uncertainty, self-criticism or a delightful and playful freedom.

At the same time, beyond collective awareness, the unforeseen and mostly unpredictable dynamics of We-Space, there are further nuances of Self and selflessness in the reciprocation of the interpersonal exchanges, the interpenetration, shifting connections, the levels of permission, the sheer dependent co-arising of it all, which is to say, “relationship.”

That this is occurring in a context assuming the exploration of We-Space to be the cutting edge of human evolution (or at least spiritual evolution) makes it all the more portentous and at the same time even dubious.  Whereas some insist Circling is a deliberate cultivation of a supportive atmosphere in which individuals elevate and clarify the level of mutual permission to access and share deep personal process, it is also just as likely that sooner or later its more challenging transformative potential is realized in the deliberate or unexpected discard of the vestments of ego to expose a more raw and real, even purified, identity. Is such a condition a result of “support?”– or, more likely, the erosion of every notion of “support?”

Individuals undertaking a traditional practice of mindfulness (shamatha meditation) eventually understand that peering through the blizzard of spontaneous mental activity isn’t necessarily a direct path to blue-sky clarity. One meets persistent and deeply rooted patterns, the shadow self, demons and false states masquerading as truth.  Likewise, a Circle, or for that matter any group, deliberate or otherwise, populated with the same personalities over time (a family?), might be regarded as a group mindfulness practice,  exploring and sharing transient emotional and mental reality, slowly evolving to more intimate and authentic qualities of relationship. It could be said that any group eventually learns to cut through and discern internal process to a consciousness of field process/phenomena. Circling is merely a more deliberate and accelerated path. If I am in a Circle, I am sharply focusing on my internal process and I also want to notice the collective field (the activity of “group mind”). And I want to distinguish the two.

However, just as in solitary practice, there is nothing linear about entering “group mind.” We cannot automatically identify or regard any single expression as an expression of the field. More likely, what is an expression of self (or discursive mind) is constantly shifting as each participant moves back and forth into and out of mindful space. Responding to or being reactive to someone else in a Circle is not equivalent to an emanation of group mindfulness. Sooner or later, personality (a regression into ego) interrupts every drop into the deep silence of authentic connection.

When we are able to cut through the personal need for support, looking for reinforcement for what are in essence our personal constructs (projections) about ourselves and others, the naked reality starkly revealed is that none of us is here to please, to connect, to support, to fix or give others what we imagine they want. Yes, we do all of these things as if they are our true mission, or at least we try. But the Circle can also be a hot context in which we examine our motives (or have them reflected back to us), thus refining our capacity for fearless compassion.

As I once witnessed in a blazing Kali-esque exquisite moment of liberating truth, one person in a Circle, at least within the limited time-frame of that meeting, embodied the profound and most painful paradox of Self: the non-dual nature of appearance and reality, the simultaneous truth of selflessness and how each of us is helplessly clinging to our identities as if there really is some materiality to our existence.

She appeared to be in a (silent) state full of both crystalline clarity and inexpressible grief, a momentary deconstruction of everyone else feeling their own unmet needs reflected back to them. For that brief period, her piercing brilliance caused considerable discomfort in some others as they appeared to struggle with ego boundaries, differentiating between Self and the field, bias about what a Circle is, a role they may have chosen or their own projections about themselves and what they want from Circling.

And ironically, of course, all of this is simply my personal projection. It is certainly my own dance with Self, mindfulness practice, assumptions I have about extending solitary practice into a group setting. But I will continue to test and test and assess and learn. I will throw open the doors and windows, just in case, one day, someone shows up to set fire to everything and burn down my house of straw.

We-Space: The Next Buddha

We-Space is a term for the deepening experience of collective field phenomena occurring in groups. It may be called collective intelligence, an energetic manifestation of the resonance occurring among the participants in an increasingly intimate group process. Whether “we-space” pre-exists or is evoked by a group process, is psychological or spiritual or evolutionary in nature depends on who you talk to. There are numerous processes included under the generic term and there are numerous purposes to which We-Space is being developed and directed. Based on what I have learned so far, the full potential of We-Space remains unexplored and virtually unlimited.

The vision of We-Space expressed here will not reflect a very deep comprehension of formal Integral theory or reference its hierarchies of evolutionary development. Like Michael Brabant, for example, I may diverge from the existing framework to explore the potential of We-Space to facilitate direct non-conceptual experience, to manifest supernormal states, to function as a matrix connecting diverse collective awakening practices, to highlight the limits of-if not overthrow-the dominant paradigm of scientific materialism. But that is the grand design, is it not? Based on personal study and practice, intuition, direct experience and contemplating the implications of what is described by many participants in the recent We-Space Summit, I think it’s possible to outline a few characteristics of this intelligence.

The threads of We-Space development and interpretations are analogous to the proliferation of long-term generative practices of different lineages of spiritual practice or to the parallel development of religious or sacred philosophies. But particularly now, they seem to be exploding out of a rapidly growing knowledge base resulting from deep and creative explorations that began five decades ago in the earliest explorations of group process.

We can easily acknowledge the contributions made by each of these lineages over a considerable period of time to the evolution of the whole. We can select personal practices from the buffet or immerse ourselves deeply in a single path. But developing a common understanding of the context in which all these processes are arising and flowering also serves and energizes the whole in ways that are already bearing magnificent and unexpected fruit.

Evolutionary Spirituality identifies itself as generic, stripped of jargon, cultural trappings and formal rituals of organized religion. It identifies as evolutionary as if it is unveiling and accelerating the evolution of human consciousness into a  universal embodiment of We-Space. Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of the long-term enjoyed by similar inquiries taking place over the past 1200 years, for example, within Mahayana Buddhism alone (or much longer in the case of other religious traditions), which to my knowledge is the most extensive documented inquiry into the science of mind. We are facing a far greater urgency, a looming existential condition characterized by overpopulation,  planetary resource depletion and climate change, combined with rapidly evolving and energizing cross-pollination of sacred philosophies in search of keys to advancing human evolution, changing the course of human development from its current self-destructive path.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s well known declaration, “The next buddha will be a sangha” applies here. His vision may have been driven by the perfusion of evolutionary philosophies across global culture concurrent with a struggle to redefine governance, economics and spirituality in humanist terms. To apply this vision to the ongoing development of We-Space is probably not novel. Considering its implied parameters in greater detail might seem ambitious, yet to do so is an acknowledgement of an obvious and natural objective: organic openings such as the Patricia Albere’s Evolutionary Collective, even going beyond powerful preliminaries such as Tej Steiner’s Core Life Skills, Circling, Christian Pankhurst’s HeartIQ, Thomas Hubl’s Transparent Communication, Surrendered Leadership and other approaches to recognizing interpersonal field phenomena and the development of authentic relationship and radical presence as preparation for and enhancement of We-Space. These do contribute to widespread and growing evidence of collective efforts to embody critical evolutionary change, leveraging the impulse to evolve to a widening audience.

Since there’s plenty of room for interpretation, I will try to be clear about Hanh’s references to Buddha and sangha. Referring to the “next Buddha” is not a reference to a historical figure. “Buddha” refers to a state of awareness, not to an individual. That state of awareness may be called Buddha nature, primordial awareness, non-dual consciousness, spontaneous presence, the ground of reality or rigpa. Further, all phenomena arise spontaneously from the primordial (non-dual) ground. The essence nature of all appearance is not other than this non-conceptual, empty and supremely spacious presence that has no beginning, no end, is unconditioned and utterly insubstantial. In fact, to say this “condition” is the ground of reality is an oxymoron. Reality is not conditional. Its essence is nothing at all.

So, how can the next Buddha be nothing at all? A sangha is a community of practice. Superficially, the next Buddha will be a community of awakening individuals, as Dustin Diperna suggests, sufficiently capable of subsuming personal ego concerns and propagating the nature of collective reality such as to be regarded as leaders with a common vision and an approach to awakening. Imagine the simultaneous poly-centric emergence of key learnings that together comprise a distributed yet wholly coherent network of awareness. Each taken separately might not fit the criteria of true non-conceptual awareness, yet together they might well express something far more powerful.

The members of such a sangha needn’t be in geographic proximity or deliberately in coordinated action. They may not even need to know each other, though identifying and naming such a sangha would be a significant moment of progress. Imagining a community redefining authentic Buddha-nature as a field of collective influence is an explosive suggestion that a world-view growing from a spirituality of the near-future, if we are to survive, will be leaderless in the conventional sense, manifesting as a shared non-conceptual unconditioned conscious transmission and propagation of the essence of its liberating nature.

At the deepest level, however, identifying a sangha as a “Buddha” implies that it will embody elements of collective awakening closely aligning with or even identical to the state of awakening achieved by the historical Buddha, which is to say a collective experience of directly embodied non-dual pure awareness in which barriers between subject and object effectively dissolve into a common experience of unitary consciousness. Such a state implies a capacity to transcend apparent paradox: the conceptual and the non-conceptual, duality and non-duality, personal agency versus being a “channel” of some extra-corporeal intelligence, accepting “what is” versus having an agenda for change, realizing the truth of appearance as well as the insubstantial nature of all appearance.

It’s also important to differentiate the unique and rapidly fluctuating time-bound and conceptual We-Space created by any group from an absolute timeless and non-conceptual essence of We-Space that exists regardless of who is engaged, yet not identified with anyone in particular. The journey of any group (sangha) deliberately exploring We-Space will eventually be to transition from its relative forms to a realization of its absolute qualities. This process will require intensive, prolonged and coherent practice, timely and creative exploration of inner space never before navigated. At some point, however, two things will become evident: 1) it very much matters who is present as individuals in the process cannot simply be randomly interchanged with an expectation of arriving at identical results; and 2) the inward turning of the group to the intersubjective space must eventually turn outward toward service.

Such a collective achievement might also model a natural integration of requisite components of an awakened state; specifically, both absolute and relative bodhicitta and the development of a collective version of bodhisattva expression in the world. This is analogous to saying that the next Buddha (Sangha) will achieve an integral state of Being and Doing, demonstrating that neither are seen as opposite sides of an hypothetical coin, but that each becomes indistinguishable from the other.

What is traditionally represented in some branches of Buddhism as an ultimate state of consciousness requiring numberless lifetimes of arduous karmic resolution to achieve is, according to Dzogchen practices of the Great Perfection, within reach in a single lifetime. There is no timeline attached to Thich Nhat Hanh’s vision; let’s just say that, for those who wish to see the human experiment continue, and assuming the conditions for such a transition, even if only on the smallest of scales, can be created, there’s no time to waste.

The following is a partial list of potential characteristics of authentic non-dual We-Space:

  • Absolute We-Space is present whether it is realized or not. It already exists whether one believes in it, has experienced it or not. It is always here. It is never not here. It is implicit in every moment. Absolute We-Space is not a product of me or of you. It arises as us yet is also inherently something greater. It does not belong to any one, any group or any thing. We belong to it.
  • We-space is not an object to be cultivated. Talking about it as if it is a separate phenomenon or as something that is either here or not here only reinforces the dualistic thinking that makes it more difficult for us to recognize and enter authentic non-dual (absolute) We-Space.
  • In relative (dualistic) We-Space, objects (“others”) appear to be real, yet are entirely projections according to our individual experience and conditioning. At all times, I am creating “you.” “You” are creating me. The objective of an evolutionary process of revealing We-Space is to unravel the projections until they either dissolve or become transparent.
  • Individualism/personal autonomy/personal agency are illusions, rooted in conceptual mind. They all refer to presumed boundaries between one identity and another. The We-Space Sangha is a deliberate creation of conditions in which boundaries, erected according to conditioning, experience, religious norms and economic assumptions, can be reconsidered. This is partly a matter of neurophysiology and partly of cultural and economic colonization. The authentic Sangha of We-Space challenges every social, religious, ideological and economic structure. In order to realize full communion and full autonomy of every individual, decolonization must be teased away from neurophysiology.
  • An enhanced emotional connection between separate individuals, i.e. an improvement of samsara, is a valid objective of We-Space inquiry, but is not the ultimate objective. We-Space may be accessed by cognitive decisions to enter into a mutuality of increased permission between two or more identities, but if we are to enter the Sangha of We-Space, we do not drop deeper into our identities. We drop out of them more completely; we commit acts of release beyond any we may have previously imagined, literally cutting through the grip of the separate time-based karmic identity, perhaps not absolutely and not permanently, but at least enough for us to see the totality and potential of our co-creation.
  • We do have to come into a personal We-Space before entering collective We-Space. We have to be comfortable with recognizing our essential poverty, experiencing ourselves as naked; becoming more comfortable and secure in our own nakedness before we are able to share naked reality with each other. The field quality that awakens such a degree of safety is the act of dropping our attachment to a separate identity. This might be compared to a personal mindfulness practice that precedes our capacity to enter a group mindfulness practice.
  • In We-space, all feelings, conditioning, reticence and emotional guarding are viewed from a more neutral, less ego-invested quality of presence. We cultivate together the capacity to reduce our need to protect our selves; that need itself becomes just another thread of the interactional dynamics that might be experienced, shared and examined. We sense a greater access to and a reduced influence of emotional material that reinforces tendencies to regard our selves as separate identities. In We-Space, with intelligence and a shared willingness to be more vulnerable, we can assist one another to come closer to our core conditioning that represents a barrier to entry into We-Space in the first place.
  • Leadership is a transitional identification of a single or group of individuals whose reliable inquiry into collective We-Space shows evidence of fruition. If this occurs, the essence nature of We-Space empowers others to examine and reflect on their own participation and become empowered to model We-Space as well. In other words, a “leader” is identified as a transmitter, perhaps as a gateway for the group into non-conceptual mind. The objective of the process is the propagation of that transmission, making everyone a leader. The more people can become this, the more we accelerate toward a critical mass of humanity realizing and becoming empowered to recognize and enter relative We-Space, to engage in We-Space communication with others, realizing that ultimately, We-Space is not about following single leaders or becoming a leader, but in sharing an empowering vision that facilitates confident expression of temporary and progressive integrative leadership emerging as the We-Space Sangha.
  • Inasmuch as “leaders” identifying with specific traditions or philosophies exert influence within a matrix of diverse approaches to awakening, the force that supports the integrity of that matrix is their own integrity and momentum toward diversification within their chosen traditions. Holding a particular approach to awakened knowledge combined with the gravitational influence provided by similar figures operating in their own orbits both retains the integrity of their knowledge base as well as contributes to the creation of new information driving the evolution of the matrix as a whole.
  • We-Space is part of an evolutionary move away from post-modern culture driven by individualism and toward enhanced collective consciousness and collective action. We shouldn’t be naive about the economic, political and religious forces arrayed against such a movement. We are in an increasingly intense confrontation with powerful forces of libertarian individualism, self-interested Austrian economic theory and radical Calvinist religious ideologies. As a corollary to Thich Nhat Hanh’s vision, the transition to Sangha implies this critical shift toward revealing the nature of collective mind, collective development and action. In Buddhist terms, We-Space is, by inspiring an intention to awaken collectively, shifting from “me” to “we.” If it is authentic, it will inspire the awakening of compassion, generosity and action characteristic of the bodhisattva spirit.

The next Buddha may not be an exclusive or isolated sangha, a group of awakening beings from different traditions and different cultures, but an inclusive, possibly  distributed Sangha, holding the collective space for awakening by its coherence and the integrity of inherent confidence. The “we” is (or can be) the cracking of the egg in which we all exist, from which leaders/teachers will emerge, the awakened ones or the ones on their way who have previously been isolated from each other by sectarian and economic structures that isolate us and incentivize individualism.

The magic that cuts through the proliferation of approaches to realizing and engaging in We-Space and the increasing differentiation of individuals engaged in those processes is surely in part the acceptance of our individual uniqueness, but is also the revelation of what we share: our common human suffering. The unique nature of each individual’s version of dealing with suffering is what both keeps us apart and also what binds us together. We-Space is a hugely promising emerging vehicle for realizing Buddha’s Third Noble Truth, that there is a way out of suffering. To the degree that groups can mid-wife, witness, honor, share and resolve the common nature of our individual paths through life, enhancing the collective field in which we exist and evolve, We-Space moves ever closer to becoming Thich Nhat Hanh’s next Buddha.