Wednesday, September 12, 2012

On Building a Stoic Community

It has been months since my last post, but this hasn't been due to inactivity, but rather the opposite. For just a taste of what we have been up to, I am posting the contents of an interview I gave for the New Stoa's newsletter, The Registry Report, earlier this month:

by Guillaume Andrieu

Michel Daw is a long-time mem­ber of the New Stoa, who has a clear tal­ent for ped­a­gogy. When I heard last year that Michel was start­ing a Sto­icism work­shop in his neigh­bour­hood, I was in­trigued and hoped he would talk about this ex­pe­ri­ence to the New Stoa. This month's spot­light ful­fills that wish.
Hi Michel. First, you're a very ac­tive mem­ber of the com­mu­nity. Along with your wife Pam, you have sev­eral ini­tia­tives to your ac­count, among which sev­eral web­sites and blogs, you're an­i­mat­ing Face­book groups about Sto­icism and a Stoic "in real life" work­shop. I'm not sure to know all of your ac­tiv­i­ties so how about mak­ing a lit­tle list of the things you'd like me to link to? 
We have sev­eral Face­book groups. Two are for work­shop par­tic­i­pants only, and one other is for the on­line course. We also work on some web­sites and blogs. The blog is called Liv­ing the Stoic Life, and the web­site sim­ply The Stoic Life. We also have a daily blog called Words of the An­cient Wise, where we post in­ter­est­ing quotes, and dis­cuss about them in the com­ments.
There's al­ready a lot of meat there, but let's talk more specif­i­cally about your work­shop ses­sions. How did it all start?
This re­quires a lit­tle back­ground. My wife, Pamela, and I be­long to a vi­brant and ac­tive Neo-Pa­gan com­mu­nity in our re­gion. The term, Neo-Pa­gan, or Pagan, is an um­brella term that cov­ers just about every­one who is seek­ing to bring back lost or for­got­ten re­li­gious or spir­i­tual prac­tices, or to in­vent new ones. Some are well known, such as the Wic­cans, the Druids, etc. Many are not as well known, such as Hel­lenic, Roman, and Norse Re­con­struc­tion­ists who focus on the schol­ar­ship of an­cient cul­tures to form a mod­ern spir­i­tual com­mu­nity. 
Pam and I are very so­cial. We enjoy the com­pany of friends, the chal­lenge of con­ver­sa­tion and the plea­sure of shared ex­pe­ri­ence. About half of the evenings of any given month are spent with friends and fam­ily for din­ner and games. We were look­ing for a group that would also serve as a spir­i­tual 'home' so to speak, after being dis­il­lu­sioned by the major re­li­gions and the dis­con­nec­tion be­tween dogma and prac­tice. We vis­ited with sev­eral of the Pagan groups, learn­ing their core prin­ci­ples and watch­ing them in ac­tion. For us, what they didto make the world a bet­ter place was far more im­por­tant than what they taught. That being said, we tended to avoid groups that strained credulity to the break­ing point (for us).
When we had dis­cov­ered Sto­icism, we knew we had found the core of our be­lief sys­tem. The prob­lem for us was that there is very lit­tle in the way of com­mu­nity. Some of the on­line com­mu­ni­ties are fine, but usu­ally ex­tremely con­tentious. There were no other Sto­ics in our area. We sus­pected that this was sim­ply be­cause most peo­ple were not aware of Sto­icism as a prac­tice and sys­tem. The only way to have a Stoic com­mu­nity, there­fore, would be to share the Stoic teach­ings with as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble, and hope that some would be in­ter­ested enough to start meet­ing to­gether. 
One fea­ture of the Neo-Pa­gan com­mu­nity is that, due to its rel­a­tively small size and scat­tered na­ture, fes­ti­vals and com­mu­nal camp­ing be­come the way in which most peo­ple make con­tact with oth­ers of sim­i­lar in­ter­ests. These 'fests' pro­vide a smörgåsbord of avail­able op­tions for re­li­gious and spir­i­tual ex­pres­sion, and many fea­ture work­shops where prac­ti­tion­ers dis­cuss and demon­strate their ap­proach to any in­ter­ested at­ten­dees. The Neo-Pa­gan com­mu­nity is still rel­a­tively young, and so it evolves quickly. These Fests are one of the keys for stay­ing in touch, in ad­di­tion to being just great camp­ing fun.
We had been study­ing Sto­icism for sev­eral years, and shar­ing some of our dis­cov­er­ies with our friends in the com­mu­nity. Most of the time this was on­line, on Face­book, but some­times we would get into con­ver­sa­tions with friends dur­ing out din­ners and games nights. One of the largest Fests in Canada was com­ing around, and some­one sug­gested that I might do a work­shop on Sto­icism. So I did, and the re­sponse was phe­nom­e­nal. Look­ing back, I can see a rea­son why this might be so. 
For the main­stream re­li­gions, their an­swers for how we should be­have, what the mean­ing and pur­pose of life are, and other big ques­tions are built into their dogma, usu­ally through sa­cred books or writ­ings. Neo-pa­gan­ism, like hu­man­ism and athe­ism, lack this cen­trally cod­i­fied re­source for an­swers to life's big ques­tions. Sto­icism, es­pe­cially if it is al­lowed to evolve, pro­vides a forum to ask these ques­tions se­ri­ously, as well as a pos­si­ble source for seek­ing an­swers. The fact that Sto­icism calls for vir­tu­ally no re­li­gious, su­per­nat­ural or spir­i­tual sup­ports, makes it a great fit for just about any­one with an open mind, be­cause it doesn't de­mand ad­her­ence to any dogma.
I think it's the sec­ond year you're doing this work­shop, but I may be wrong. How did it start ?
Prior to the work­shop at the fes­ti­val, we had de­cided to see if there was in­ter­est in form­ing a study group (which we also called a work­shop), to start in the fall. As part of our web­site, we had been work­ing with Keith Sed­don's ex­cel­lent Stoic Seren­ity book as the foun­da­tion for an on­line course, with his kind per­mis­sion. We de­cided to use these lessons as the foun­da­tion for a se­ries of monthly work­shops. With this very vague out­line in place, we de­cided to make an an­nounce­ment at the Fest.
Now, a year or so later, we are en­ter­ing our sec­ond year of work­shops. The par­tic­i­pants of last year's work­shops are mov­ing on to more dis­cus­sion (more on this later) and an new group has formed for the In­tro­duc­tion to Sto­icism work­shops. So far, we are run­ning three work­shops a month: two for last year's par­tic­i­pants, and an­other for new­com­ers.
Who joins, how do you find "re­cruits" ? How do you ad­ver­tise about it ?
Most, though not all, of the par­tic­i­pants come from our cir­cle of friends, and by ex­ten­sion their friends as well. Fol­low­ing the an­nounce­ment at the fest, we an­nounced the work­shops through Face­book as well. We wanted these ses­sions to be live and face-to-face. That was im­por­tant. We wanted to start a con­ver­sa­tion that would go on for 10 months.
The re­sponse, to say the least, was over­whelm­ing. We had over 40 peo­ple ex­press an in­ter­est in the work­shops in a 24 hour pe­riod. Since we planned to have these dis­cus­sions in our home, that num­ber was clearly more that we could han­dle at any one time. We de­cided to break into four sep­a­rate groups of about 10 or so each. We ex­pected at­tri­tion over the com­ing months, so we knew that the groups would be­come smaller over time. In order to fos­ter a sense of ca­ma­raderie and team spirit, we named each Team after a key Stoic teacher: Team Zeno, Team Chrisyp­pus, Team Au­re­lius and Team Epicte­tus. At the be­gin­ning, we were run­ning a work­shop every week of the month. After the 10 months of work­shops were com­pleted, I was pleas­antly sur­prised that we still had about half the orig­i­nal groups left. About half-way through the year we re­com­bined the groups into two new teams: Team Seneca and Team Mu­so­nius.
The 'grad­u­ates' of the first year of work­shops ex­pressed an in­ter­est in con­tin­u­ing the work­shops, so Pam and I de­cided to step it up a notch. We have called the sec­ond year of work­shops Prac­ti­cal Sto­icism, with a focus on im­ple­ment­ing some of the Stoic teach­ing into daily prac­tice. The work­shop na­ture of the meet­ings also means that we can re­port our progress and fail­ures to each other, and seek sup­port and ad­vice for im­ple­ment­ing these skills on a con­sis­tent basis. We are using William Irvine's A Guide to the Good Life as our text, and we will dis­cuss points on which we agree and dis­agree with the au­thor and each other. I am look­ing for­ward to it.
We have about a dozen par­tic­i­pants who are in­ter­ested in the In­tro­duc­tory course this year. We have de­cided to keep them in a sin­gle group, ex­pect­ing at­tri­tion to re­duce this num­ber to about 50% again. We may be pleas­antly sur­prised, how­ever, be­cause word about what the ses­sions are about and how they are run has got­ten out, so peo­ple com­ing know more about what to ex­pect.
Could you tell us a bit about how the ses­sions work ? What do you do / talk about ?
To begin, we set some early ground rules for the group. Once a group had been formed, it would be con­sid­ered closed. No new mem­bers would be al­lowed to join with­out the ap­proval of the en­tire group. These work­shops were de­signed to be a 'safe' place to share opin­ions, and I sus­pected that over time, peo­ple would also come to share per­sonal tri­als and tri­umphs in their jour­neys of self-ex­am­i­na­tion. They had to be able to trust the peo­ple around them not to share that in­for­ma­tion with the wider com­mu­nity. We were ex­plicit about cre­at­ing this 'safe place,' and all of the at­ten­dees agreed that dis­cre­tion would be a key to their at­ten­dance.
I have been a Teacher of Adults for decades, so my ex­pe­ri­ence in group fa­cil­i­ta­tion, les­son prepa­ra­tion and dis­cus­sion gen­er­a­tion come into play. I de­signed each work­shop, and all of the work­shops com­bined, to fol­low the Gor­don Train­ing 'com­pe­tence ma­trix' ('un­con­scious in­com­pe­tence,' 'con­scious in­com­pe­tence,' 'con­scious com­pe­tence' and 'un­con­scious com­pe­tence'), with the final twin goals of 're­flec­tive com­pe­tence' and 'cre­ative com­pe­tence.' 
To this end, each work­shop would pre­sent a Stoic prin­ci­ple, and a prac­tice that could be used to lock that prin­ci­ple in as a guide to be­hav­iour. I would an­nounce the topic for the next ses­sion, and send out read­ing ma­te­ri­als (again, based on the out­lines of the on­line course) ahead of the work­shops. Some of the par­tic­i­pants would read the ma­te­ri­als ahead of time, some did not. 
The ses­sion would open at about 7 PM. We would begin by catch­ing up on the pre­vi­ous month's news and ex­pe­ri­ences, and par­tic­i­pants would share their ex­pe­ri­ences with re­gards to what they had learned thus far. Fol­low­ing this, we would start on the work­shop topic. Carnegie's ad­vice for pre­sent­ing was a gen­eral rule: "Tell the au­di­ence what you're going to say, say it; then tell them what you've said."  I would usu­ally in­tro­duce some of the foun­da­tional con­cepts, some­times with the aid of a white-board. We would then share in the read­ing of the Stoic sources. I have a few copies of Seneca, Epicte­tus, and Mar­cus Au­re­lius, and I would flag these ahead of time. We would then pass the books around while in­di­vid­u­als would read a rel­e­vant pas­sage. We would then dis­cuss the im­pact or mean­ing, each per­son mak­ing com­ments or seek­ing clar­i­fi­ca­tion. 
I was very clear from the out­set that I did not hold these to be sa­cred in any way. These were men who, through their own stud­ies, had come to con­clu­sions about the way the world worked. That being said, these are human teach­ings, so many of them would not come as a sur­prise. In many cases, the Sto­ics would tell us things we would al­ready know at some level. The chal­lenge for us, of course, would be to take these 'well-known' teach­ings and ac­tu­ally put them into prac­tice. Ad­di­tion­ally, we could, and some­times did, dis­agree with the Stoic writ­ers on some points, with­out in­val­i­dat­ing the whole. We were not at­tempt­ing to form a re­li­gion, but rather have a open dis­cus­sion with each other. 
On the sub­ject of re­li­gion, an­other thing that we were de­lib­er­ate to avoid was any dis­cus­sion of faith or re­li­gion in the con­text of the dis­cus­sions. Sto­icism, as I have said, re­quires no ad­her­ence to re­li­gious dogma of any stripe, and so the dis­cus­sion of re­li­gion was quickly, firmly and kindly fore­stalled. As the groups tended to be a mix of dif­fer­ent Pa­gans, Athe­ists and Ag­nos­tics, every­one agreed to and ap­pre­ci­ated the lack of dogma in the dis­cus­sions.
As a teacher of many years, I un­der­stand the dy­nam­ics of group in­ter­ac­tion, Tuck­man's fa­mil­iar Team De­vel­op­ment model1 (Form­ing, Storm­ing, Norm­ing, Per­form­ing and Ad­journ­ing) comes into play in the for­ma­tion and main­te­nance of each Team. Set­ting the ground rules early re­duces much of the stress in the Storm­ing stage. Par­tic­i­pants fell into re­spect­ful be­hav­iour pat­terns quickly, mostly due to the qual­ity of their char­ac­ters once they were com­fort­able that they would not be forced to take de­fen­sive pos­tures.
About half-way through the evening, we would break for 15 - 20 min­utes of cof­fee and snacks, which were pro­vided by the par­tic­i­pants. This is where the real work was hap­pen­ing, as par­tic­i­pants would get to know each other, share sto­ries and ask me or Pamela ques­tions about spe­cific ap­pli­ca­tions of the month's prin­ci­ples. We would then re­con­vene, and the top­ics raised dur­ing the break would be woven into the fol­low­ing dis­cus­sion. The ses­sion would wrap up with a re­fo­cus on the the prin­ci­ples and prac­tices dis­cussed, and lead in to the fol­low­ing month's topic. Work­shops tended to last about 3 hours, though some would go a lit­tle longer based on dis­cus­sions.
These ses­sions, I have been told by par­tic­i­pants, have changed lives. Peo­ple trapped in their own un­con­sciously de­struc­tive be­hav­iour pat­terns have learned to step back and con­sider their choices, mostly due to the fact that they are now con­scious that they can step back, and that the do have choices. The work­shops have, by their very na­ture, begun to cre­ate a Stoic com­mu­nity in our area. Sev­eral par­tic­i­pants now self-iden­tify as Sto­ics, and are re­quest­ing that we host an ad­di­tional in­for­mal 'cof­fee night,' to allow them to just hang out to­gether and per­haps share a meal. Friend­ships are being formed, trust is being built, and a real de­sire to work to­gether on ben­e­fit pro­jects is com­ing to­gether. In short, the Stoic com­mu­nity we were seek­ing is being formed, not through any ar­ti­fi­cial means, but at the re­quest (some­times de­mand) of the par­tic­i­pants. They have found some­thing that they have in com­mon, some­thing that tran­scends re­li­gious bound­aries, and they wish to pre­serve it, to make it grow.
Is there any ad­vice you could give to some­one who would like to do the same in his/her neigh­bour­hood ?
Run­ning a se­ries of work­shops such as these is no easy task. It re­quires a will­ing com­mit­ment of re­sources and times. Prepa­ra­tion, com­mu­ni­ca­tion, set­ting and tak­ing down the room, fol­low up and con­tin­u­ing con­ver­sa­tions all re­quire at­ten­tion. Ad­ver­tis­ing the work­shops will also cost time, if not money. That being said, these are life chang­ing prin­ci­ples, and in­vest­ment will likely yield great ben­e­fits. Ex­pe­ri­ence and un­der­stand­ing of team and group dy­nam­ics is cru­cial in lead­ing any group, and it is no less so here. 
On an­other note, as the 'mes­sen­ger' of many of these teach­ings, there is a very real dan­ger of being what I call 'guru-fied.' That is, some par­tic­i­pants may come to view you as a pas­tor, priest or leader of some kind. We have been very con­scious of this, and through­out our ses­sions we were care­ful to lis­ten for points where we could and should be learn­ing as well. Just like the other par­tic­i­pants, we were still and would al­ways be 'prokop­toi', stu­dents of Sto­icism. There never were, are, and likely will ever be any Sages to whom we could go for learn­ing, and so the best we can all do is to con­tin­u­ously learn from each other.
Fi­nally, read deeply and read widely. Read as much Stoic ma­te­r­ial as you can, in­clud­ing ma­te­ri­als crit­i­cal of Sto­icism. More­over, read in many fields as well: psy­chol­ogy, so­ci­ol­ogy, physics, his­tory. Sto­icism is about the en­tire human ex­pe­ri­ence, so as a dis­cus­sion leader, you need to have many av­enues avail­able to you to delve into for clar­ity and ap­pli­ca­tion. 
But most of all, lead a Stoic ses­sion be­cause you love it. I like to say that I am 'para­dox­i­cally pas­sion­ate' about Sto­icism. It is true, though, for it fills me with so much seren­ity and joy to have a liv­ing room full of peo­ple in ac­tive dis­cus­sion about what we can all do to live a more flour­ish­ing life, and then watch­ing as the re­al­iza­tion that that seren­ity and joy can be theirs as well.
Since I couldn't con­clude any bet­ter than you did, I'll just thank you for your time. I am sure that many peo­ple will enjoy read­ing about this ex­pe­ri­ence.

  1. A de­scrip­tion of this model is avail­able on this page