Complexity, Contemplation and the Cultivation of Listening, Patience & Respect
Jennifer K. Lynne is the founder and director of thecontactproject, an organization utilizing contemplative practices, neuroscientific research, and the science of complex systems to collaborate with individuals, communities, and organizations in cultivating the capacities for listening, patience, and respect. Believing these precepts form individuals able to address change, conflict and diversity with equanimity, she developed The Engaged Identity theory while studying Buddhist Psychology and Peace at Naropa University. She received her masters degree in Conflict Transformation at the Center for Justice & Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University, with a specialization in Identity and Trauma and is pursuing a PhD in Peace Studies at the University of New England, Australia. She has been a Visiting Scholar at the Mind & Life Institute at Amherst College and an invited presenter for the International Peace Research Association, the National Coalition of Dialogue & Deliberation, and the Association for Conflict Resolution. Her current research interests explore the The Engaged Identity process and the development of listening, patience, and respect as foundations for conflict transformation and peacebuilding in multiple cultural and conflictual contexts.
Yago: Jennifer, you are welcome to this blog
where we are exploring creative ways to deconstruct today’s energies of
enslavement. We are enslaved of internalized mental constructs that keep
narrowing our sense of identity. We are enslaved of the illusion of being
separated from the world. This is a journey of awakening toward our real
identity based on our radical interconnectedness with the whole creation. It is
the exploration of what John Paul Lederach calls “the below and the beyond”. In
order to engage meaningfully in this journey we are invited to develop a
“quality of presence”. In this regard your Engaged Identity Theory will be a great
contribution to this blog and to the peacebuilding field as a whole. I would
like to start this interview getting to know your background as a Buddhist and
as a peacebuilder...
Jennifer: Thank you Yago. It has been
a great pleasure speaking with you and exploring our shared interests over the
last few months. People often ask me about my Buddhist ‘begining’ and I like to
share the story of the day I was christened. My mother was doing a lot of meditation back in 1970, and the day of my
christening she took me in her arms and excused herself to a quite place on the
grounds of the Mission San Carlos Borroméo del río Carmelo in Carmel,
California. She practiced a form of
meditation called tonglen, where one visualizes taking onto oneself the
suffering of others on the in-breath, and on the out-breath giving happiness
and love to all sentient beings. I like to think of this time with her as my
first meditation. In her arms, six
months old...breathing and sharing that space with her. After a long journey with my practice, I
took my refuge vows in 2008. As a
peacebuilder, I was a part of Naropa University’s first Peacebuilding cohort in
2007 under the direction of Dr. Sudarshan Kapur and Dr. Candace Walworth and
then came to CJP after attending the Summer Peacebuilding Institute, having
graduated in 2009. Currently, I’m finishing my doctorate in Peace studies
at the University of New England in Australia and serving as the director of
thecontactproject, an organisation I founded in 2007.
Yago: Now, could you
introduce to us your Engaged Identity Theory? What is its main contribution to
the peacebuilding field?
The Three Fires. Photo: Falk Kienas
Jennifer: The theory and practice lie
at the intersections of identity, complexity theory, and peacebuilding theory
from a Western perspective and from the concepts of Dukkha, non-dualism and
contemplation from a Buddhist perspective. Dukkha is that quality or sense of unsatisfactoriness we all have from
time to time. It is the reason for
ignorance, attachment and aversion. In
Buddhist thinking, these are known as the three poisons. Sometimes translated as ignorance, greed, and
hatred. Basically, what is being
suggested is the identity as a dynamic and vast complex culmination of
perception and experience that lies at the root of conflict, discomfort and
afflicted emotions like hatred or greed. It is through the understanding of
this ‘identity’ or rather ‘identities’ that we can develop capacities to expand
that understanding in order to embrace things like diversity and difference
rather than feel threatened by them. The
theory suggests the cultivation of the capacities for listening, patience and
respect as foundations for conflict transformation and peacebuilding. The idea is that through listening, patience
and respect we expand our identities to see that ‘other’ is really a form of
self in a different expression of experience and perception. The theory and practice look to contemplative
practices to assist in this cultivation. The inclusion of systems thinking
allows for the dynamics of process and the unknown to be recognized as as an
important part of relationships and experiences.
As for it’s main contribution? I would leave that for people to discover
from themselves. My feeling is that it
is up to each of us to discover what is meaningful for us personally. I don’t think of the theory or the practice
of cultivating an Engaged Identity as being just a peacebuilding theory. It is just a way of looking at our human
experience that acknowledges things like change and root causes of suffering
and suggests the development of three basic human capacities as foundations for
Yago: You say that we create an identity
that is a dynamic culmination of perceptions. So, is identity exclusively based
in what we perceive? According to your own experience and research, can we say
that we are the creators of our identity?
Jennifer: I don’t believe identity is
exclusively based in perception, but I do believe that the mind constructs a
relative reality. This reality is based on perception and experience and
informed by our senses. It is through
these senses...eye, ear, touch, tongue, nose and intuition that we understand
this relative truth. We require the
other to make meaning. So, here we see that
we in fact are not the sole creators of our identity. It takes the relational or relative aspect
for the construction of the identity.
This is actually really great news. It allows us to see that dynamic, evolutionary quality to our identity
that is subjective to the changing experiences and maturation process. There is where we look we can look for
the roots of transformation. Whether it
is pshyco-social trauma or structural violence or our family relationships,
this relational requirement of other and the dynamic quality of identity gives
us the possibility and potential for the identity to shift, to heal, to expand.
Yago: You also talk of the reconstruction of
identity through perception. Are you highlighting here on our capacity of
paying attention? What is the role of attention in identity construction?
Jennifer: This is an interesting
question. I was talking with a
participant during a training in Nigeria last fall and the question came up
about the importance of intention. He expressed
a deep belief that intention was a key component in the development of
relationships. I do think intention
plays a role but I shared with him that the development of attention is a key
component. Intention comes from that
place of identity where we know something.
We know what we want, our intention, based on our worldviews and
experiences. This can be a bit
problematic when set against conflict transformation or resolution. Many folks have done things with good
intentions that turned out to be harmful and hurtful. When we cultivated attention, we suspend that
previous knowing and root ourselves in the present moment. Then we are able to see what is happening as
it unfolds and create new ways of expressing the intention that engage the
others worldviews and experiences. We
discover things with attention that intention can miss, we miss opportunities
Yago: You say that when engaging in our task
of conflict transformation it is very important to understand what it is that
is being transformed. Is this an invitation to mindfulness?
Jennifer: We could say mindfulness,
but I think it is good to be a bit more specific. Mindfulness has been quite the buzz word in
the West the last few years. So, I think
it is more of an invitation to awareness. To wake up to the present moment. In doing that, we can observe our roles in our relationships. As citizens with the choices we make with our
dollars to the choices we make with our words or time, or as family and
community members. A mediator is also a
human being with multiple identities such as a woman, man, perhaps
mother, brother, professional, etc. and will be transformed by the processes
they engage in. To be aware is to do the work of reflection and contemplation
in order to see oneself as this multitude of identities and possibilities. We will change due to the engagement as a
mediator just as we will change after reading a book. Experience influences. As we cultivate awareness, we begin to
acknowledge the wonder of experience and embrace it with curiosity and awe,
knowing we will emerge as a different person.
Yago: Let us now talk about identity threat. You say that difference, harm,
trauma, conflict, violence, humiliation, and all types of aggression can be a
threat to identity and can cause it to freeze and to stagnate. Is it possible
to overcome such a threat?
Jennifer: This is the work of Donna Hicks, EveIin Linder and others that have shown the human responses to these
experiences. We show the same flight,
fight or freeze responses as other animals. The Engaged Identity theory
suggests that when we move too quickly to repair or reconcile the identity does
not have time to make the transformation from these responses and can cause further trauma. Again,
attention vs. intention. Intention is to
heal and repair, but if we are paying attention, we may see other things need
to be addressed as those processes begin. It could be physical healing or a sense of justice being done. If no identity is able to be formed outside
the traumatic event, the post-traumatic state becomes the predominant identity.
I use this quote by Antonio
Gramsci to suggest root causes of conflict in the theory and when I teach the
Engaged identity practice, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact the old
is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of
morbid symptoms appear." It points
not only to root causes of conflict, but also to a direction of transformation’s requirements. This holds true for the transformation of identity.
say that for transformation to occur, repair and reconstruction are not enough.
Identity actually expands in a process where the understanding of self and
other is transformed. Could you expand on this?
Jennifer:When we develop the capacity
for the expansion of identity we are able to include the other in our own
identity, maintain our core identity and no longer feel threatened by
insecurity, uncertainty, or difference.
The old identity pre-experience is dying and yet the new identity is not
formed due to the experience, so we must allow the birth, or transformation of
identity, to occur in order to transcend this stagnation. This requires us to cultivate the new
identity by expanding our identities past the traumatic state to include the
process and experience and potential beyond the harm.
Yago: You say that recognizing the
inherency of change and of resilience in the human and natural world offers a
window into understanding identity not as a collective definition of frameworks
but as an evolving maturation of the way we view and value life. In a previous
interview of this blog we already dealt with enslavement as fear of change but
I would like to know your own point of view. Life is a verb, a process, a flow.
Which is the origin of this fear that keeps us stagnant in our sense of
Jennifer: My sense is the origin
comes from fear of death, of mortality.
If we risk changing, we risk moving into that which is unknown and that
speaks directly to the fear of no longer existing. For in those moments of unknowing, we are
re-born in a way. We move from an
identity that has a perceived certainty to that which has yet to be
experienced, perceived or understood. The
process of change is like a bardo, on one side the known identity or life and
on the other the unknown. So we fear the unknown because it is like non-existence until we
transition and transform.
Yago: Shunryu Suzuki says: “We have to think and to
observe things without stagnation. We shall accept things as they are without
difficulty. Our mind should be soft and open enough to understand things as
they are”. He is inviting us to develop the capacity of equanimity, meaning
what passes through your mind is held with spaciousness. How important it is to
develop this capacity as engage in a situation of conflict?
Jennifer: Suzuki speaks to this
quality of equanimity as without stagnation and with acceptance. Just like when
we discussed earlier about identity and stagnation, same same. The Engaged Identity theory supports the idea
that through listening, patience and respect we cultivate the capacities for
equanimity. Equanimity does not stop
conflict, but rather allows conflict to be engaged as simply another
experience. We don’t have to attach to
the conflict, which causes all sorts of ‘morbid symptoms’.
We can simply observe and respond from this
place of equanimity. It does not mean
that acknowledgement or responsibility for harm are not addressed. It is based on this idea that as our
afflictive emotions rise, our cognitive reasoning diminishes. I talk a lot about this quality when teaching
TEI and Mediation/Negotiation. We lose
potentials for conflict transformation when we fail to acknowledge either the emotional
components or the intellectual components.
When we get angry, we often say things we don’t mean. Then eventually,
we have to deal with both the words that weren’t meant and the original reason
for anger. This causes a type of
escalation of the conflict. Where as, if
we can engaged the conflict with this balance of emotion and intellect,
respecting both components, we have the full spectrum of emotions and intellect
to draw on in order to address the conflict. So, compassion and creativity can aid us.
Yago: As you say the first precept for the development of an engaged identity is listening. Here you are talking of the ability to genuinely listen to the other party’s conceptual and emotional experience. Very often we get caught in conceptual and pure mental discussions. You say that we have to go beyond concepts and integrate the emotional dimension. We already talked about this in a previous interview of this blog with Annmarie Early. I would appreciate in you can share your own vision and understanding about the whole spectrum of listening. What are we meant to listen to? How do we listen to reality in its whole complexity?
Jennifer: Listening happens with all of our senses, not just the ears. I refer to this as multi-sensory listening. We listen with our eyes and our ears, and I would suggest that our responses to stimulus are a form a listening. So we can listen though touch, intuition, taste, smell, sound and sight. All of the experiences where we have a response are in fact examples of types of listening. This is how we ‘listen to the reality in it’s complexity’. Cultivating an awareness of the senses and observing our behaviors is listening. By doing this we relax our reliance on the mind and can access the empathic qualities that multi-sensory listening provides.
When we cultivate the precept of listening, we give space of empathy and compassion to arise. We allow the emotions to hold space along with the conceptual experience. This of course is quite paramount to peacebuilding efforts, where we are looking to form sustainable relationships and solutions. We must learn to listen to the conflict without becoming attached to it. So, here we see something very similar to the idea of equanimity we discussed earlier. The role of non-attachment as a tool for the understanding of complexity.
Yago: The second precept is patience. To
me patience goes together with the capacity to have self-control, holding
oneself without reacting, engaging in the Now without just projecting in the
other one’s assumptions and worldviews. Here we are talking about the
importance of developing the inner witness that all of us carry deep within,
the place where our real identity resides. In fact, to be able to acknowledge
this ground of our being we need indeed to be patient, to listen attentively
and to respect (having a loving presence towards ourselves first). Would you
agree with my view? How can we cultivate patience towards ourselves?
Jennifer:I think patience is
understood in a lot of ways. I’m not
much for ideas of control, self-self or otherwise. If we have to control then most likely
something is being suppressed that requires this holding or control. For me, patience is being with what is
arising without attachment. If you're angry, no need to control it....feel it. If you're sad...be sad. But this
idea of an inter witness or observer is key to cultivating the awareness that
allows those emotions to be felt without losing ourselves in them. We can feel, but not be consumed. We can return to that state of equanimity
without losing a day to anger.
patience as wisdom. Patience allows us
to take time to balance and orient ourselves. Patience can move us or still us. It provides this wonderful quality of compassion for what is happening. As for cultivating patience towards
ourselves? I really don’t think of it
that way. For me, it is more about
cultivating a state of being that doesn’t orient itself towards any thing or
rather provides a foundation for our identities and worldviews to engaged with
one another. Anytime we talk of the
self, I like to remember that non-dualism doesn’t make those
distinctions. In the concept of
non-dualism there is no inherent difference between subject and object or the
categories that form conceptual constructs. As people interested in peacebuilding,
we can see where this capacity can greatly aid us, whether as mediators or for
development. Patience creates the spaces
needed to develop compassion. We can see
the larger picture in order to respond as opposed to the hasty reactions that
too often waste time and resources in the long run.
Yago: The third precept is respect. You say
is essential for building the types of relationships supportive of
transformation. Respect allows self-acceptance and the opportunity for the
individual to take responsibility and personal accountability for their
actions.” I believe with
“Sounds True” founder Tami Simon that self-acceptance is one of our most
difficult challenges, no matter how much mediation or therapy we’ve tried. As
she says “it
seems all too easy to fall into the trap of judging ourselves as inadequate,
finding fault with our achievements or our bodies, and believing our
self-critical inner voices that insist we’ll never measure up to who we ought
to be.” She has recently
initiated the Self-Acceptance Project to investigate ways to overcome the
difficulties of embracing who we are. What is your own research showing in this
regard? How can we learn to be kind and
compassionate towards ourselves on a consistent basis?
Actions are relational
Jennifer: Well, again I don’t orient
this idea of respect towards the self. It is the self in relation to others. It is
self-acceptance of our actions. Actions
are relational, cause and effect. I’m
not familiar with Tami’s work, so I can’t really speak to any intersections
with the Engaged Identity theory or any of my research. I can say that once again, this relative self
causes a lot of suffering. Lack of
acceptance or self-esteem, inadequacies, the longing for belonging, all of this
suffering can be alleviated through the cultivation of these three
precepts. The more we are able to
genuinely listen, practice patience and be respectful, the greater our ability
to cultivate equanimity. Equanimity and
suffering can’t co-exist. One allows for
emotion to arise without attachment and the other is caused by attachment, a stagnation that doesn’t allow us to be in the present moment
but rather caught in a past or a future that robs us of our actual
present. I would like to say a bit more
about how respect is a crucial capacity for us to develop. Respect allows us to
discover one another. If I can’t respect
you, then I am acting from a place of aversion, ignorance or attachment. There are those three poisons again, you
never have to look far to see them in action.
Two examples here, one comes from the mediation & negotiation
context and the other is a story from my work in Nigeria with Christian and
Muslims populations. In mediation, we
often talk about separating the person from the problem. When we do this we are in fact allowing
respect for a person to be present without having to respect an action and this
allows us to address the problem with the inclusion of the persons emotions and
experiences. We can discover ways to address both the person and the action to
alleviate the suffering of both. In Nigeria, this idea of respect was extremely
challenging. I was working with people
who had suffered great loss and trauma at the hands of a different religious
group. It was very difficult to talk of
respecting the people but not their actions to a group of traumitized
individuals. We had to really slow things down with the trainings to address
the various suffering people had experienced. By taking this time, we could explore and uncover certain situations
that helped with re-humanization of the ‘other’ side and could then
develop this understanding that without respect, the violence would
continue. Gandhi was very clear on
this. That we must find a way to
maintain a relationship through the injustice and harm in order for
transformation to occur. The Engaged Identity practice really embraces this idea
of respect as a foundation for sustainable relationships. I have taken the term Ethics in Motion as a
way to describe these three precepts. They are how we express compassion and empathy and I believe are vital
to our understanding and development as human beings.
Yago: These precepts look to me like key
dispositions to navigate into the below and the beyond of the conflict. It
looks to me that first and foremost these three attitudes are meant to be cultivated
by the peacebuilding practitioners. Do you agree with this?
Jennifer:Non dualism is non
dualism...so I don’t see a first and foremost or a distinction between the
peacebuilder and another. I think here
lies a great disservice to the understanding of the human family...we are all
peacebuilders, we just need the shift of awareness to embrace this. Honestly, my perspective, there is no below
and beyond. On one level, this idea that the internal world is separate from the external
world is another form of dualism. Our
peacebuilding model of the tree of conflict, for example, was quite hard for me
to understand when I came to CJP. The
roots of the conflict always had external issues as the drivers. Things like religion, ethnicity or
resources. Coming from a Buddhist
perspective, those are still surface issues, not roots. They are expressions of identity. Roots are the aversion, ignorance and attachment we have been discussing. So, I am
wary of calling things below that refer to the internal climate of the
practitioner just as I am wary of calling things beyond due to it’s future
orientation. I think it is just ‘navigating’ the now. Which is a vast web of the internal,
external, personal, societal, past and future without the distinctions.
The Dalai Lama
Dalai Lama says that the
next stage of human evolution will begin when the scientist sit down with the
meditators. Could you
comment on this statement?
Jennifer: Well the Dalai Lama has had
a long interest in science and has said many times that he would welcome a
dialogue between Buddhist practitioners and science. Even going on to say that if science could
show differences in the Buddhist understanding of meaning and life that he
would encourage change in the teachings.
Of course, he has been involved in dialogues with scientists for over
twenty five years now, in particular with the Mind and Life Institute. I was very grateful to have been one of the
first Visiting Scholars with the Institute this past Summer. Although, MLI has been involved with these
dialogues, their Summer Research Institute and with a fellows program for over
a decade. The institute has grown
immensely in the last few years and with new support began the Visiting
Scholars program in 2013. My time in
Amherst, MA, where the institute is now located, was both humbling and
amazing. I had two months to work with
staff and other scholars in looking at contemplatives practices and the latest
in neuro-scientific research to be included in the Engaged Identity theory and thecontactproject’s
training development. Originally, they
were quite focused on the neuro-scientific aspect of meditation practices, but
over the years they have now expanded to include other contemplative practices
and other Humanities research. To go back to the Dalai Lama’s quote, I think one way of understanding
that is to understand that different people hold different information and
experiences in different ways. So,
people who may have trouble with the esoteric aspect of mediation may not see
it’s value. However, they may strongly
relate to scientific findings and therefore develop a practice based on that
research. Or perhaps, as I mentioned
above it is about taking subjective experience and testing it with an eye to
suggest that Engaged Identity Theory can use complexity science as a
theoretical base for the development of listening, patience and respect as
vehicles for conflict transformation. But, first of all, could you introduce to
us what is complexity science?
Jennifer: I could but, even systems thinking or complexity science experts disagree on scope and definition.I think of complexity science as a modality to further understand non-dualism.To me, these two things are almost synonymous. Not to be too simplistic about complexity, but ‘anything goes and everything counts’ could be a way to describe it. Along with the quote from Gramsci I used earlier,I rely on Oliver Wendell Holmes, “I would not give a fig for simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for simplicity on the other side of complexity” for clarity.These two quotes really speak to the heart of the Engaged Identity theory and practice.With Holmes, we see that through and with complexity we come to a point of simplicity.I believe this speaksto non-duality, interdependence and the like.We need diversity and difference to flourish.The Engaged Identity uses both this idea of non-dualism and complexity as a way of engaging the various identities we assume. This allows for the inclusion of the infinite ways in which we, as human beings, practice these precepts.
For example, in Nigeria is disrespectful for children to look into an adults eyes, this is the way respect is shown.While there is the US, respect would be expressed by the child looking directly into an adult’s eyes to show the same expression of respect.Now this may be considered cultural, but it is the idea of complexity, of many expressions of a similar intent that interests me.It gives us insight into new ways of behaving that may differ from our context.Another important point to complexity is this idea of a non-linear way of assessing outcomes.With systems thinking, we leave room for the spirals of connection to germinate without expectation of outcomes.In the peacebuilding field this is particularly important for monitoring and evaluation.Based on the old models of assessment, we couldn’t capture the benefits that fell outside the analytical models.Now there is a movement to see complexity as a way of analyzing, developing programming and evaluating that recognizes that the time frames or limited scope of inquiry may not accurately capture what’s happening on the ground.
Personally, I believe that this is why education, travel and experience have such a profound effect on our identities and worldviews.Knowing complexity allows us to come to what my teacher Chögyam TrungpaRinpocheexpressed as the tender heart of humanity.Here lies the simplicity on the other side.The knowing that there are infinite ways to live a life and yet at the same time, this heart that we all share that connects us, quite simple. Carlos Barrios, in the Mayan elder and Ajq’ij of the Eagle Clansays, says: “the greatest wisdom is in simplicity. Love, respect, tolerance, sharing, gratitude, forgiveness. It’s not complex or elaborate. The real knowledge is free. It’s encoded in your DNA. All you need is within you. Great teachers have said that from the beginning. Find your heart, and you will find your way.”
Yago: Is there a difference between complicated and complexity?
Jennifer: I firmly believe there is a difference between complicated and complexity.There is no need to complexify anything, the complexity is already there. What we are asked to do is become aware of it.To become aware of the complexity so we may find our way to that human heart and to the simplicity to which Holmes speaks of. And the thing is, I would bet every reader of this blog at one time or another has in fact experienced that heart, that simplicity.It's that moment when things seem alright, clear and peaceful; when you truly feel the joy of being alive. So, the work is really just bringing those moments together until it is a constant state of being. I think that is enlightenment.
Yago: Jennifer, thanks a lot for sharing your wisdom with us. Engaged Identity theory is an enlightening contribution to the peacebuilding field. We have also learnt how to engage with conflict from a Buddhist perspective.
Jennifer:I just want to say thank
you, Yago. It has really been
interesting working with these questions and to contribute to the project. I hope this helps share some understanding of
the theory and practice of cultivating an Engaged Identity. I also like to welcome everyone to join thecontactproject
family on Facebook and Twiter for updates and insights into our work.