Center for Spiritual Inquiry and Integral Education

R. Michael Fisher
Process Over Content: Building Existential Capacity
by R. Michael Fisher - Monday, August 8, 2011, 07:33 AM

In a nutshell, if CSIIE is at all going to be helpful in this world and the challenges it faces, it ought to teach more than content. Many higher education institutions will say this too, and argue they are teaching values, and character. CSIIE looks at one of the major problems in our world: the ability to communicate well with differences among peoples. In other words, we have a conflict problem. Conflict is not the problem. How we handle it is.

For several years I have been studying what I called "existential capacity." It is sort of like Howard Gardner's "existential intelligence," or Keat's notion of "negative capability." As Associates we often talk about the importance of "second attention" as primary in helping people and ourselves when we are in situations where our emotions (usually 'negative' ones) tend to restrict our clarity and perspective. My own conception includes those and goes further, especially with an integral perspective. This is not the place to try to explicate this all. I merely will give a few indicators of what existential capacity is and how CSIIE is working toward it in some ways.

First, let me be clear that my vision for CSIIE was that it help solve problems in the world, individually and collectively. We are an educational institute that starts with learners. A learner is our first site for change. What we believe virtually every learner in the 21st century today needs is to better be able to deal with differences. Our faculty operate on the premise that "we don't have to all agree on everything." We as Associates do need to agree on somethings, at least enough to make policies together for CSIIE and carry forward the management of it into the future with sustainability. Beyond that, there is no need to have everyone agree, especially on ideological and values and beliefs, and/or theories, philosophies, and actions.

I was listening to an NPR program "On Being" the other day and a professor of moral philosophy was being interviewed. His research for a decade has been on how to best help understand what it means to be with people with differences. The host of the program was clear that it is so important to learn this skill, or meta-skill as I would call it, because conflict is everywhere. The host noted that Culture Wars, Paradigm Wars, and wars of all kinds, including just hatred and discrimination are massive barriers to people of differences getting together to solve the same problems we share together, e.g., global warming. The professor's own multi-faith experiences and multi-cultural exchanges, as well as his study of big moral changes in several nations in history shows that people change when they find a better alternative that they each can 'side-up' to and compromise on. He argued the evidence is not good for showing you can force these moral changes by law or coercion or democratic voting. Those latter are short-term solutions but they leave people of differences alienated, often shamed, and even raging to get revenge. Why? Mostly, because they have not been heard in the process.

You see the problem of these great moral changes or values, is not solvable by law and politics as content--that is, it is on the books, so everyone has to follow it now. The Pope's have always condemned pre-marital sex and use of condoms, and you can see how little moral impact that has had on people's behaviors, even good Catholics. At CSIIE we are working to put the process before content, and integrate the two as valuable. The moral  professor argued that what is missing is "good communication" about life, not just about issues and difference. We need, he said, processes where people of differences get together not just because they have arguments of difference, but because we are all people trying to get the best out of life and we all want less suffering. He noted, too often in political processes the aim is to get people of different moral beliefs together to debate and then resolve the issue so we can "agree." He thinks that likely is not going to happen with most people most of the time. What you can achieve in political processes is to get them to talk and listen, to try to understand respectfully, and disagree if need be. People once heard, he says, and once each sees each other as a human being with common interests in things like "their children" or music, or good food, then, they are less likely to abstract "the Other" and make them only a threat to their own values and life.

He believes the process of communicating is most important if we are to solve problems like Culture Wars. I tend to agree. There is a reason in the description of CSIIE that we use terms like "process" focused and "enspirited community" because they are what we teach, not merely courses and workshops or trainings (i.e., content). There are real skills to learn to be able to communicate better, most everyone would agree on that. The larger meta-skill is how to use those skills of good communication in a complex and tense (conflictual) atmosphere and situation. Fear and conflict often go together, and fear undermines often the best of outcomes. So for me, practicing fearlessness as a path, call it spiritual, or whatever you like, it is a path to building existential capacity. What capacity is this:

(a) ability to be with differences,

(b) ability to sit in the fire when feeling threatened,

(c) ability to think clearly and connect with people in multiple modalities for the sake of a mutual good outcome not for the sake of you dominating the other by being "faster," "braver," and so on,

(d) being able to hold space with the paradox of conflicting values in yourself and in others, and staying open to emergent processes that are unknown or unpredictable that can unfold when two or more people gather--in other words, you don't jump on the 'quick fix' because it will get you (presumably) out of the uncomfort you and the other are in,

(e) ability to face 'death of your own ego' needs, as you may be shown wrong by the other, or shown weak and fearful, shown confused, or shown injured, etc.--meaning the ability to acknowledge your feelings and emotions and those of others who also could be experiencing that 'death'.

That's a start to existential capacity. We all have more to dialogue on this and I trust you'll keep it in mind in every encounter you have in CSIIE (at least). And, also to remember, not to be too hard on yourself when you don't have much existential capacity in any moment. It takes practice. Sometimes our "supplies" of it are better than other times.