Open Space is a participant-led method of organizing meetings or conferences where people determine what and how to explore issues that interest them, rather than working from a pre-determined agenda and schedule. I was immediately seduced watching its four principles and single law in action:
- Whoever comes are the right people. No need to wait for some “right” amount of people, or folks with the best expertise or positioning. Whoever shows up are damn good enough.
- Whatever happens is the only thing that could have. I love this come-into-the-present-moment invite, a far cry from the woulda-coulda-shoulda mantra of yore.
- Whenever it starts is the right time. Things start when they’re ready, not when the clock dictates.
- When it’s over, it’s over. Time to move onto something else when your rates of return have started diminishing. (Unless you’re having a good time. Then hang out, of course.)
The Law of Two Feet (also called the Law of Mobility out of respect to those folks without two feet, or without feet they can walk on): If you find yourself in a situation where you’re not learning or contributing, go somewhere else and use your time more productively, even if means standing on your head in the corner by yourself. (Last clause purely my own invention.)
I use open space a lot, even in gatherings that aren’t intentional about it. (As in: nobody but me knows I’m using it.)
In groups that I’m a part of, from the intentional community where I live to organizations where I serve in leadership roles, I used to get bent out of shape by who didn’t come to meetings or who didn’t pull their weight. I’ve learned to focus instead on who has shown up, and go from there. (Nothing’s a quick fix. I still get bent out of shape. But less often, and less bent.)
I used to suffer through conferences, feeling trapped in windowless, wallpapered rooms where panelists droned on about how smart they were, how important their work. No longer. Toe, heel, click.
Open space has helped me be less critical of my own shortcomings as a facilitator and teacher when things haven’t worked out as I envisioned they would. Even when I’m the one doing the bulk of planning and facilitating within a group, it’s let me loosen up ideas (read: indoctrinated pedagogy) of what folks should be learning or accomplishing within a certain time frame.
It’s hard for me to judge, but I suspect open space’s loosening effects have actually made me a better teacher, by asking me to prepare in a very different way for sessions than I used to. In addition to immersing myself in content; figuring out how to best break down information and create opportunities for experience and interaction; mapping out levels of learning and outcomes; and paying attention to the natural rhythm and flow of a session, I make sure to do whatever it is I need to do to be fully present at a session. If I’m at all stressed about how to get through the planned agenda by 5, I might miss a golden nugget when, say, a participant gives voice to a new thought that points to the underlying cause of an organizational dilemma, when we’ve spent weeks sniffing up the wrong fire hydrant.
I was supposed to be taking polarity therapy training all weekend. I spent it instead in bed, wiped out by a bug that has kept me at home, feverish and achy and quiet, for more than a week now.
I haven’t been this sick in years. It’s the first time I’ve called a doctor between annual check-ups in living memory. More often my don’t-feel-good MO is to notice an “underwater” or headachy sensation. If I take myself home right away and do my concoctions and potions and spells, I’m fully recovered before I’m even sick.
This time, I’ve been taking many strong herbs, supplements, and teas, along with a few allopathic drugs for good measure, and nothing. I’ve been resting and meditating and very gently yogaing and steam inhaling and aromatherapying and napping and still, nothing. I’ve mixed warm milk with brandy, squeezed lemon into ginger, sauteed rhizomes and added miracle broths, combined Reiki with legs up the couch, and still….nothing. (Well, lots of things have happened, but not Abracadabra: Cured!)
While I was throbbing and hacking, my polarity therapy student colleagues spent the weekend immersed in the element of ether. As in: “The regions of space beyond the earth’s atmosphere; the heavens; or the element believed in ancient and medieval civilizations to fill all space above the sphere of the moon and to compose the stars and planets.” In Sanskrit, ether (sometimes translated as space or sky) is known as “akasha.” It’s the element considered to be closest to the source, giving everything a bit more breathing room. Energetically, it contains a neutral charge that holds the space, much as a gifted facilitator would a charged town hall.
As I write this, at the end of Day 8 and with a few small exceptions unable to be of use to the world, it strikes me that this kind of illness is the body-mind’s way of creating that open space inside.
I’ve been confined to my apartment; in that time, the longest I’ve been around another human was about 20 minutes. (Brave Heart.)
My home has become a hermitage, with sweet souls making sure I have what I need for my solitary journey. One friend showed me how to brew tea from a herb he grew to fight fever, another brought over a homemade mentholated balm. Two lovingly made me soup, another carried in groceries and a book on a cop’s critique of the criminal justice system, yet another, eucalyptus oil to help with the congestion in my chest.
My steadiest connection to the outside has been my laptop and DSL. I’ve listened to online dharma talks and This American Life’s Poultry Slam, watched documentaries about socially conscious artists and serial killers, let Pandora choose the background music as I’ve reviewed a friend’s application to teach in the Middle East, and as I’ve tweaked how to describe my work on this site.
This flu has forced me to retreat. Ether is associated with the sense of hearing. There’s a spaciousness that arises when your voice is silent, a universe created when everything that’s not absolutely necessary falls aside. More is starting to feel clear to me, like the G note chime of the tuning fork I hold close to my throat, wishing its pitch to quench whatever is still holding onto the inside my lungs.
When it’s over, it’ll be over. Until then, though the ride hasn’t been completely pleasant, it’s been the only thing that could have happened that I would have made the space to listen to.