Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Quaker Workcamps: After 4 days, change really does happen.

I started participating in Quaker Workcamps about four years ago. I noticed a pattern after having experienced multi-day Workcamps: sometime around the 4th day, something shifted. It has been hard to clearly articulate it, other than to say that the group came together, shifting from being individuals to becoming a community. This was true regardless of location. It wasn't just that we became a community, but the relationships that developed during Workcamps have lasted. Strong bonds have been formed. Previous posts on this site have reflected on this (such as here and here).

Last week, I was taking a class titled "The Whole Brain Child." The instructor, Dr. Tina Bryson, commented on the first day that she is a big fan of week-long summer camps because they give youth an opportunity to open up new neural pathways in the brain, bringing balance and integration to the various parts of the brain, and to form new attachments. She commented that the research shows that all of these things happen within a relatively short period of time - a few days. For the class purposes, we were looking at the implications of this when working in clinical settings with youth and adults for whom neural integration and attachment are not healthy and balanced. For me, there was the added "ah hah!" that this is what I have seen happen on Workcamps.

All of this helps me better understand what it is that happens around that fourth day. As we become more comfortable and familiar with each other and our new surroundings, our brain moves up from the heightened "on alert" state (the amygdala) that is engaged when we are in new situations. Then the real magic happens. Through a series of activities, down time, play time, mindfulness and reflection, various parts of the left and right brain are stimulated as we have week-long conversations about service, social justice, and community. Brain integration takes place. Neural pathways are opened, and new attachments are formed.  The exciting thing is that Dr. Bryson's work and the work of others cited in the class show that these can have lasting positive impact on the mental and physical health of people.

The implications for this are fantastic. To start, there is the issue of how, when we segregate ourselves to be among "like-minded" people, we are likely to be hardening neural pathways that don't allow us to easily see the truths of others or fully engage in life in healthy ways.  For Friends, I see this as a challenge we need to address. If we are to truly believe that there is that of God in All, but we tend to be fairly partisan in our social actions while spending time among like-minded people, our brain does not stay open and integrated, and the emotional amygdala gets activated when we hear discord, leading to a shut-down of higher level thinking. So what we need to do is to more actively engage in experiences that allow us to work through this.

This is where Quaker Workcamps come in - especially the multi-day Workcamps as we run them at William Penn House. We consciously take time to be with people that are on the surface different from us, but do so from a place of equality rather than service (where roles are defined between server and the served). We overcome anxieties by going places we are told are unsafe, and experientially see that things are not as we have been told. This is where the integration starts, and continues as we play, work, reflect, converse, eat and sleep. And then there is the time factor. We take time for these processes to take root and new, lasting relationships to be formed. We do all of this as we look at issues of social, economic and environmental justice.  The next step, as we have started more this year, is to have participants of these programs take on leadership roles - furthering the process of healthy integration and attachment.

None of this is the full explanation of what happens. It does not exclude the possibility that higher powers are at play. It simply brings empirical evidence to validate what we have seen anecdotally and intuitively. But that is huge in our world of skepticism and proven outcomes.  It validates the role that Quaker Workcamps can play in our spiritual formation, outreach, community building and peace/justice work. Most importantly, as we support creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and community, new ideas and actions for a more just peaceful world can emerge. They might not be exactly what we envisioned, but just like when the brain has all aspects engaged utilizing what they do best, the more we can be engaged with others despite our differences, the better off we all will be.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Mindfulness, Simplicity, Fear and Quaker Workcamps

I just finished reading the book "Mindfulness" by Harvard professor Ellen Langer.  The premise is that mindfulness is much more than a meditative state of consciousness; it is an awareness of choices, and that things have different meanings in different contexts.  One of her main themes is that we often live mindlessly, having assumptions about people, places and things because of the way we have been raised.  We can see this in the divisive nature of our culture and the assumptions we make about people with differing opinions.  We see it in the way we are led by polls and community conversations that give limited options, leading us to think these are the only options.  Her research supports that when people are actively engaged and have many options, they are more likely to stay engaged, to be optimistic, to be healthier and to even live longer.
Much of her writing is in sync with what we strive to accomplish with Washington Quaker Workcamps.  We talk often about options and opportunities, instead of problems.  We talk often about the importance of the journey, not the destination.  A guideline is that there are not mistakes, only opportunities to learn.  By walking to places, we encourage practicing mindfulness about our surroundings.  Through reflection and action, we change the context within which we see ourselves in the world.  All of this is intended to create safe spaces for participants - mostly youth - to see the world as one of opportunities to be embraced and for them to see their own gifts in embracing them.

Two common challenges we run into when planning and running Workcamps that are also reflected in Langer's work are fear and control. They usually go hand-in-hand, and the result is that they often lead to more mindlessness rather than mindfulness.  The desire to create and follow a set schedule blocks our ability to engage in what is going on in the moment.  The fear of upsetting parents can lead to limited options of service - revolving around perceived needs or around false senses of security such as only doing service that guarantees nothing bad can happen.  Not only do these limit the experiences and learning opportunities of the participants, I think they are also doing a disservice by not allowing the youth to actively look at options and make (or at least influence) decisions by engaging in the process of weighing factors such as personal hunger and personal risk.  It does not adequately prepare them to deal with these things as they head off to post-high school lives where the supervision is far less.

In 1 Peter 3: 13-22, the message is about not letting fear stop us from doing what is right, but to also have good reasoning for doing what is right.  At Washington Quaker Workcamps, we do not shy away from conversations about the role that fear and control play in guiding daily action, and how these can lead us to be negligent in our responsibilities.  A fear that a teen may hurt him/herself by climbing a ladder or using a power tool does not adequately prepare that youth for when he/she is no longer at home.  Likewise, concerns that a parent might be upset because his/her youth has to wait 2 hours for dinner while preparing food for homeless people is not a reason to avoid the important experiences and lessons about justice and privilege that are at the root of so many service programs, and a fear of being in close proximity to homeless people who may have mental illness should lead to conversations about how we make assumptions about people and things we have not experienced rather than not going to a fellowship breakfast of mostly homeless folks.

The Quaker Testimony of "Simplicity" is one of the ways to break down some of this fear and control.  "Simplicity", in this context, is in the Benedictine tradition of striving to let go of assumptions of what we have been told about other people or places so we can be open to seeing what is with our own eyes.  When we tell people that certain neighborhoods in our own town are unsafe (even though we may send them to places just as unsafe in other cities or countries), we perpetuate closed assumptions rather than open wonder. When we engage with something or place that is new to us, our eyes are open. The right thing to do is to engage, create, collaborate, and inspire curiosity, not to perpetuate fear through assumptions. It is not only right for the benefit of Quaker Workcamp participants, but it is right for bringing greater justice and peace to the world.