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.