They are scattered about the steps and lawns. A knot of people puzzling over the relationship between education and politics. Sari-clad women practicing Brazilian martial arts. A group of home-schooled 10-year-olds selling handmade paperweights. A young man recounting with artistic precision his transformative experience on the front lines of the Egyptian revolution.
There are workshops springing up on dozens of topics, from organic farming to quantum physics. Someone’s dorm room becomes a nightly meeting space for an intergenerational dialogue on intimacy. A monk hosts a fieldtrip to witness an ancient form of Buddhist debate. Tibet’s Prime Minister-in-exile shares his struggle to bring spiritual authenticity into his public role. People huddle in every corner, planning, designing, problem-solving, searching. Collaborations begin. New projects are born. Rescued street dogs lie prostrate – belly up and grinning – blissfully ignorant outliers to it all. Paragliders drop featherlike from the sky.
Over six days last week, 150 people of all ages and from many walks of life gathered in Himachal Pradesh, India to explore possibilities for moving away from factory schooling models and toward more multi-dimensional, self-organizing approaches to learning that could be integrated into our communities and our lives. The sixth Learning Societies unConference was held at Deer Park Institute in Bir, a small Tibetan colony in the foothills of the Himalayas. Not far from Dharamshala, the seat of Tibet’s government-in-exile, Bir is a patchwork village, home to Buddhist monasteries, tea farms, paragliding launch points, retreat centers, closet-sized shops, and a steady flow of monks on motorbikes.
Like many self-organizing gatherings, the unConference relied heavily on Open Space for developing the agenda. Open Space processes are often lively enough, but something at the unConference really bloomed. Somehow, the qualities that we had come to explore in the hope that what we discovered would feed our work in the world, managed to come directly and experientially to life right during the gathering itself. The conference became its own generative learning community – the social goal in microcosm, the values in full expression.
We’ve been thinking about the hows and whys of this experience during the last few days. There are undoubtedly many reasons that the unConference became immediately expressive of what it was trying to create, but a couple of things particularly struck us.
Any Open Space with engaged people will generate a variety of conversations and activities, but here the diversity was unusually palpable because of the physical layout. Stretched across a large, multi-level courtyard and garden, most of the groupings were visible to each other. You might be quite intent on whatever you were doing, but still you couldn’t help tuning in to the jury-rigged learning ecology pulsing around you. The gathering spilled over its own boundaries. The distinction between ideas and relationships, philosophies and practices, vanished.
In some way you felt like you were participating in everything. Maybe you were in no mood to work on a collaborative drawing or learn a martial art or engage in a two-hour conversation about home-schooling, but the artistic, physical, and intellectual energies at work marked you all the same and put you in touch with those dimensions of yourself. Walking past meditative faces bent over scissors and felt, however dim your personal taste for puppet making, you took in some of that peaceful, handcrafted spirit and were glad for it.
The place felt full. Being in touch with so many dimensions of human community, and of yourself, you felt full. And this fullness flavored the ways that people connected to each other. It was easier to be authentic. It was easier to risk the messier parts of yourself. It was easier to be compassionate toward that messiness in others. As in many engaging organizations we have known, it wasn’t that people necessarily shared more personal details about their lives (some did, some didn’t). It had more to do with the quality of interaction than the content. Even the most glancing encounters had a generosity to them, a compassionate recognition that learning is about growth and that growth doesn’t come in the neatly contained categories we have become used to. People felt free to talk to each other about and to host Open Space sessions on the things they actually cared about and struggled with.
The unConference was also explicitly framed around four qualities: contemplation, compassion, creativity, and courage. In the weeks before the gathering, people were asked to reflect upon how those qualities related to their own learning and unlearning experiences and to post their reflections to the conference list-serve. Then on the second day of the conference we spent some time trying to connect to those qualities in ourselves as best we could. This emphasis seemed to contribute subtly to the vitality of the conference. Something shifts when we focus on the experiential qualities we want to explore instead of simply on abstract ideas or external outcomes.
For these and other reasons, the unConference wasn’t just about understanding deep values but about creating them. Expressive organization, whatever the form, is fundamentally a generative process. When we explore compassion in an experiential way, we create more compassion. When we commit to the experience of collaborative growth, we create more space in the world for such growth to occur. Expressive organization occurs when we remember that the human spirit is primarily concerned not with being or doing but with becoming.