Sitting [Almost] In the Fire: Book Review
“I should have told you at the beginning, reading this book will make you angry,” our teacher said, already four weeks into the new semester. “Everyone in my class when we read this book had a very strong reaction. They all got in fights with their partners and classmates. Sorry I forgot to tell you that earlier.”
He smiled nervously while the whole class gave a silent “Oh.”
I glanced sideways at Holly. We’d had a gnarly disagreement the week before, though we’d always been able to talk to each other about everything before then. She grinned wryly and we exchanged raised eyebrows.
What book could have such an effect on an entire class of graduate students? Sitting in the Fire by Arnold Mindell, subtitled “Large group transformation using conflict and diversity.” You can read about “Arny” Mindell and his wife, Amy, on their website or on Wikipedia. He describes his work as “process oriented psychology.” Processwork, according to Arny, is
…the art, science, and the psychology of following the nature of individuals, communities, and eco-systems. What is this nature exactly? It is the “great medicine” for most suffering–that is, the way and meaning of change as it appears in everyday reality and in dreaming, in our bodies, relationships, communities and environment.
Um…okay… Still with me? Mindell’s 1995 book, Sitting in the Fire, is actually quite illuminating and useful, though I read it with a highly critical mind. First of all, he writes is flowing metaphorical language (“great medicine?” “nature of individuals?”), while I prefer something more straightforward and practical. Potayto, potahto. Second, he likes to make statements without clarifying whether he’s speaking from a phenomenological or ontological standpoint. This bugs me. Does it simply feel like the universe is sending us messages or do you actually believe that the universe is sending us messages? This bugs me. I’ve never felt ‘the universe’ speaking to me, so I must accept that as a phenomenological statement and move on without believing I need to have the same experience in order to do the work described.
What work is that? Mindell calls it “worldwork” or “eldership,” whereas I simply understanding it as facilitation. This book is about facilitating dialogue and reconciliation, as much as is possible, between diverse groups in conflict. The first-hand accounts take place in Belfast, Eastern Europe, and South Los Angeles, geographies riddled with tension. There are also stories from corporations and organizations that have somehow broken down and invited Mindell to help them understand why. The work is emotionally intense, highly personal for the participants (and sometimes the facilitators), and can also be very rewarding.
The first topic Mindell covers is anger, the “fire” in which we sit. Interesting, he doesn’t tell us to put out the fire or fear it. Mindell firmly believes that conflict can be dealt with constructively and in a way that heals. Moreover, it’s not something we can ever get out of, prevent, or stop. He writes in the Foreword, ““If we don’t permit hostilities a legitimate outlet, they are bound to take illegitimate routes.” He speaks about riots and revolution and more subtle forms, such as passive aggressive obstruction, non-cooperation, gossip, backbiting, and cliquishness. I see this everyday. As I read Mindell’s book, I saw it everywhere and became very disheartened. Some of my classmates got angry, while I just got depressed (which is often called “anger turned inward”). This is why we have to cultivate a spirit of “eldership.” A strong mental and emotional demeanor that doesn’t hide from conflict or escalate it. This may sound familiar to some of us.
“An elder stands for all sides,” Mindell writes on page 40. He never explicitly defines what an “elder” is, but we can understand it from the context as not someone who is older or even necessarily wiser, but someone who has made a conscious commitment to becoming more aware – aware of rank, power, injustice, suffering, and everything hidden, repressed, marginalized, and subconscious in this world. In Buddhist terms we could understand this as one who cultivates mindfulness, wisdom, and compassion. Through meditation and practice we Buddhists seek to become aware of ourselves, including everything hidden, repressed, marginalized, and subconscious. Mindell’s work seeks to also become aware of all those hidden things that occur in relationships, from the smallest scale (a couple) to the largest (all the interdependent nations of the world). Two different sets of scholars at Naropa University have written the same way about the Group Process class, which is included in their psychology and divinity curriculum (and UWest’s divinity program also).
“Large group experiences allow participants to better understand themselves and group dynamics.” – Kaklauskas & Olson, p. 138“Both on the meditation cushion and sitting in the contemplative group, the contract first and foremost is to endure the often unpleasant, if not painful, process of witnessing one’s unruly, aggressive, lustful, impatient mind.” – Nimmanheminda, p. 168
Differences are as essential as they are troublesome. Were there no differences at all between people, when faced with a problem, every single person would arrive at the same solution – and the first wrong solution would be the doom of the species. We have not survived in spite of our differences but rather because of them. Therefore, they are to be prized, studied, and understood.
However, we also tend to use our differences to create hierarchies – of gender, race, sexual orientation, economic status, and even behavioral norms. We create in-groups and out-groups, mainstream culture and counter culture, better and worse, good and bad, rich and poor.
Yet because our differences are so essential to our survival, the point is not to erase them or even “transcend” them, but rather to become aware of and value them. This is why and elder must stand for all sides. First, we recognize there are sides. We can argue about whether they are “natural” or “inevitable” or even “necessary,” but we cannot argue about the fact that they exist. We must work with what exists. Second, the elder stands of all of them – not just the oppressed but also the oppressor, not just the mainstream but also the outcast. This is because fundamentally, no matter which side we’re on, we are all vulnerable to harm and to harming others. Therefore, in order to bring this potential for harm and harming into everyone’s awareness, not just the side one happens to be on, the elder has to be on all sides.
This is really hard work. Our greatest – Ghandhi, King, Jesus, and Buddha – have all tried to bring humanity into greater harmony. We might get discouraged and think “If they couldn’t do it, how can we?” That’s about where I was four weeks into this class. I was looking all around and seeing conflicts everywhere and thinking “How the hell am I supposed to fix all this?” Latter it would occur to me that if what is happening is my responsibility because I participate in a broken system, then it is the responsibility of everyone in that system. And everyone is a lot of people. Which is, fundamentally, why I think “worldwork” works. It brings people together and gives all of them the task of figuring it out, first by bringing conflicts out into the light and then by facilitating reconciliations. It is not the elder’s job to fix anything, just to give people the tools to do it themselves. They already understand their own situation best.
In the first half of the book, Mindell writes about many of the often hidden motivations behind conflict – injustice, desire for revenge, terrorism. That’ll get anyone either good and depressed or pissed off, but just hang in there. It also takes a good hard look at the facilitator’s issues using practical exercises. If we don’t have our heads screwed on halfway straight, what good would we be to others? It provides instructions in helping others find their voice, recognize power and influence in their lives, and understand social forces like racism and war.
The second half of the book is a manual for elders. It helps facilitators find their seat in the fire and provides them tools. Mindell starts by telling a story about a racism conference in Oakland just after the 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. It devolved into screaming. Mindell’s answer was not to try to calm everyone down or eject the screamers, but was simply to stand in the fire and tell them “I am listening.” Eventually, his words were picked up and repeated by others until they became a chant, a response to the people who had reacted to the feeling of not being heard by screaming. This created a space for emotional display and many people began to come forward to express what they had repressed for so long: suffering, plain and simple. We often talk about fairness and injustice, the wrong people have done us, human rights and what we deserve. Just as we have an aversion to anger, we have an aversion to public displays of suffering. This is why we don’t like homeless people on our streets and why people break up with each other in public places. But making the suffering public creates a place for compassion to grow. Mindell writes of this incident:
Nothing more needed to be done at that moment. The powerful experience that emerged from the pain brought people together. Many expressed hope; they felt this experience was reason enough to experiment with believing in humankind again.
It may seem counter-intuitive to pull hope out of a screaming match and public stories of suffering, but it’s not unprecedented. In South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Council, which included Archbishop Desmond Tutu, created after apartheid ended did just that on a national scale. Anyone could come to speak their truth, not only to tell stories of abuse, torture, rape, and murder, but also to tell stories of abusing, torturing, raping, and murdering in the name of an unjust system. The council is largely seen as a successful model for other nations and systems struggling to overcome systematized suffering.
The remainder of the second half of the book covers everything from socioeconomics and the influence of money to “The Technique and Tao of War.” It provides some interesting “metaskills” for elders which go beyond mere leadership and include learning how to learn from groups (which Mindell recognizes as their own best experts and healers), understanding intuition and unstated messages, letting things be when sometimes resolution is beyond our grasp, and the tao.
This word has popped up before, “tao” (pronounced “dow” like the stock market). But what does it mean? Mindell hinted at it in the very beginning when he talked about the “nature of individuals.” The tao is “the way” – the way things will be when we don’t push, don’t pull, don’t struggle. It is the natural way of things. Following the tao can prompt a radical change, because it’s not how we normally live our lives. Normally we rush around trying to fix everything and often just creating more problems. Normally we cling to ego rather than letting it go.
Doing nothing does not necessarily mean being totally passive. It means not pushing, following what is present and use the energy of what is happening instead of forcing things.
It’s moving downstream instead of determinedly paddling up. You can get further by going with the flow and usually still find what you’re looking for.
Usually the thing that prevents us from doing this is ego, especially the ego of someone who thinks of themselves as a leader. “Learn to have a leader’s ego and then learn to drop it,” Mindell advises. Become like water and wind, go naturally where you are needed. Be open, responsive, and flexible. Harder than it sounds, I know, and a little wishy-washy to those of us with a more practical bent, but good advice nonetheless. I recommend you read the book if you want to understand completely because I’m really not a good translator of this metaphorical language.
The second half also gives us tools for dealing with violence, cultivating equanimity without apathy, and creating awareness in ourselves and others. Much of this is also the goal of Buddhist practice, so I won’t bother to summarize.
In conclusion, I’ll just say that Mindell’s book scares me and gives me hope in equal parts. I don’t mind a good conflict now and then, but I’m highly averse to anger. My parents are both naturally calm people and nothing in my upbringing prepared me to deal with the fire of other people’s anger (or my own). Mindell’s book has given me more tools in my belt for both understanding, dealing with, and letting the wood of anger burn down. If you find yourself feeling stuck in a conflict (or ever think you might be) with no way out but through, this book is for you. Just read all of it and with a critical mind.