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In Conversation With
The Art of Overcoming Polarized Conversations
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In times of extreme polarization and deep uncertainty, is it possible to have a conversation where our views and opinions don’t have to be defended by brandishing the sword, but can be shared and listened to with curiosity and compassion?

In London, a media platform is trying to bridge the gap between those difficult conversations that we need to have, and our inability to “not take it personally”. Rebel Wisdom, founded by former BBC4 journalist David Fuller, is doing so by creating a series of regular, community-based events that “Ignite, Inspire and Transform”.

I sat down to have An Honest Conversation with Alexander Beiner, Rebel Wisdom’s co-founder. Alexander also happens to organize one of the biggest conferences on psychedelic consciousness in the world, Breaking Convention, and is one of those deep thinkers whose aim in life is to use knowledge to create experiences which will inspire positive change, not just for those people who are “on his side”.

Rebel Wisdom create a series of regular group events that allow the exploration of our inner selves and our relationships with others. They do so by using cutting-edge psychological tools and games from different theoretical and experiential backgrounds and inviting experts from various fields to lead and/or participate with the general public.

And thus, in a whirlwind of science and magic, Alexander Beiner and David Fuller give us a very rare gift: the chance to experience what it means to feel safe, to be 100% authentic in a group of strangers… what it means to look up from our self-made trenches and see that those on the other side are not, as we thought, our enemies, but a mere reflection of ourselves.

When our existing ways of thinking break down, it’s the rebels and the renegades, those who dare to think differently, who need to reboot the system.

Rebel Wisdom

Straight into the deep end, Alex: I was absolutely fascinated by your Medium article, which touches upon some very important topics for the world we live in today.  But I was also aware it is very academic. Do you think academic research might be a bit too “old school” for our current times?

Yes I think so too… it’s what people refer to when they talk about being too “left brain”. Do you know Ian McGillchrist? He’s now a psychiatrist, but he used to be an English professor. He wrote a book called the Master and his Emissary, about how our culture has been dictated by the left brain. 

The left brain is super literal. For instance, if someone has really bad damage to the left side of the brain when you asked them the question “How are you feeling?”, they might reply in a literal sense “With my fingers”. Whereas if you have a stroke in the left brain, and you’re an artist, for example, you become way better!

In this episode by RSA Animate, psychiatrist and writer Iain McGilchrist explains how our ‘divided brain’ has profoundly altered human behaviour, culture and society.

We need both sides to operate in balance… research that gathers a great amount of data is important, but we also need that “right-brain” flow and understanding. We need to allow things to emerge following intuition, following threads, following what creates excitement within you. This approach leads to much more powerful insights!

When you talk about following what ignites you, I think of the concept of energy and vitality. How does this vitality concept fit in with your work at Rebel Wisdom? 

On a really broad level, it relates to the crisis of meaning. I think there is a crisis of meaning in our culture. When we don’t know who we are, or where we are going, or why we should go anywhere at all… it’s a huge sucker of vitality.

Some have gone as far as saying that the mental health crisis is an extension of that, of the deeper crisis of meaning. It’s a crisis that goes way beyond the conscious mind can understand, and it erupts through culture.

Trump is a really good example of the shadow of our culture, for instance, as he seemingly came out of nowhere. Obviously it includes other elements too, such as disillusionment in the political class etc… but he is an opportunity for progressive America and anyone else around the world who considers themselves to be progressive, to own their shadow. 

The coastal elite in America, and the London elite in the UK, had a model of inclusivity which was not very inclusive. It sounded like something along the lines “We’ll include everyone except if you’re not as inclusive as us, in which case you are racists and deplorable, so we don’t care about you”. And everyone knew that, so when they got an opportunity to call that out, they did… hence Trump President.

So this was an opportunity for us to own our shadow. What is the shadow of being a hyper-inclusive group of people? It’s a lack of inclusivity, a lack of empathy with everyone, a lack of understanding. 

What could have happened was that, as progressive people came to an awareness of the fact that they hadn’t been empathetic towards everyone, they would look for ways to reconcile, to practice empathy. None of that happened, everyone doubled down on the finger-pointing and the racism and all the negative aspects of the other.  That’s a non-healthy vitality present in society today. It’s a nervous system response…

Like a fight-or-flight response? (the physiological response all humans and animals have in the face of a real or perceived threat, which can often lead to aggression)

Yes. Everyone’s operating on the fight-or-flight response, to some degree. I think David (the other Rebel Wisdom co-founder, en) puts it perfectly when he says “there’s a low ebb of flight-or-fight in everyone. Everyone is very easily triggered, agitated, quick to anger…maybe scared, uncertain. So that’s quite a difficult environment for real vitality to come through. Because you need safety first. That’s one of the great insights of the Polyvagal Theory (explained below by its creator, Dr Porges): we need to feel safe in our nervous system before we can connect with each other and be creative.
It’s impossible to overcome any type of polarization when you’re not feeling safe. 

When looking up Rebel Wisdom on Google, the first 3 words you see are: IGNITE, INSPIRE, TRANSFORM. What are you hoping to ignite, who do you want to inspire and what are you going to transform?

You’ve put me on the spot, that’s been there since the beginning! Let me break it down:
IGNITE – I guess there’s a sense of stuckness in our culture right now, and we would like to ignite some engagement…away from nihilism.

Out of nihilism, into meaning.

Alex Beiner

INSPIRE – there are a few different threads to Inspiration.
Personally, it’s quite a psycho/spiritual thing… deep inspiration comes from within the individual and that’s their personal journey. Hopefully, our content and events and experiences can help someone find that inspiration and follow their own thread. And there’s also Intellectual inspirations: we have some many brilliant thinkers and voices, which is inspirational for the people and for us as well, we learn from the people we are interviewing.

TRANSFORM is the big one: transformation is human birthright in a way, it’s the thing that we do, it’s the thing every story is about. It’s an inherent part of being alive and if we get out of our own way and allow ourselves to transform Then we have more of a hope of living in the kind of world we would like to live in. And that transformation comes from doing the work, which we are big fans of. Doing the work of transformation means having practices.

What does having practices mean to you?
Having practices means caring deeply about living authentically. Caring about what is my truth, how do I come into contact with others, how do I think for myself etc…

We use the Sovereignty a lot, which Jordan Hall, who’s been here at RB, talks about. It’s becoming more popular, often associated with a country being sovereign. Sovereignty in the individual means that the individual is sufficient unto oneself, but paradoxically able to be part of the community. You can’t be an effective member of the community if you haven’t put your oxygen mask on first.

Do you mean it’s ok to be selfish?

No, I mean you can’t contribute positively to the community if you are not aware of who you are, what’s your own trauma, what activates you, what you are projecting onto others… aware and mindful of it. 

It’s the difference between having a conversation where we don’t necessarily have a fixed position, and we are able to let go and be in a flow… as opposed to a Facebook argument where no one is getting their mind changed. When you’re in this tight, fixed, nervous response position where it’s more like “this is my position and that is your position”. And that how politics is mainly carried out. It’s the ego’s way of solving problems, instead of coming into a space of vulnerability and openness… allowing oneself to be transformed. 

That’s the biggest focus of the project, which isn’t easy. It’s not easy to be in a conversation and be aware in the body, aware of all the subtleties that are going on in the body when someone is talking about something you don’t like, for instance. Being able to stay open and just present and bringing that into the conversation…

It would look something like “While you’re saying that, or mentioning that thing, I feel some tightness in my chest and an urge to be defensive, I feel uncomfortable…” This is important because, as soon as you speak the truth, that’s when the whole conversation transforms, otherwise it’s coming out sideways, and we might say things that are manipulative or snippy… We’re trying to create spaces for that kind of conversation to happen, and those kind of conversations are transformative.

That’s fascinating. How do you create spaces in that way, presumably in your retreats?

Weirdly, not so much in the retreats. The retreats are much more about working on oneself. What David often says is: “We have to do it ourselves, we don’t have to do it alone”. We hold the space and loads of people come and go for it… which is amazing. All we can do is create a container. 

There’s clearly a need for it.

Yes, people are very brave. The question we’ve been asking ourselves for ages is: how do we take the realm of ideas and bring them together with the techniques used in the retreats? And that’s been our ongoing experiment, which is the Collective Intelligence Lab, starting in October. It’s an experiment to see what combinations of practices we need to be able to come into a state of flow with each other and to be able to have very difficult conversations on touchy, hot-button subjects. Those subjects that people are often afraid to talk about. But If we don’t talk about in the right way, in a way that’s not charged, compassionately….

…It might even be counterproductive. 

Completely. And I’ve been guilty of that myself. 

I found that in my own personal journey… being aware and admitting to being at fault is a real bridge one can build, it’s gut-to-gut communication. I guess because it’s showing vulnerability…

Yes, completely… gut-to- gut communication, sounds about right. Humility is super important. We all have egos that will try to prevail. Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist who wrote a book called “The Righteous Mind”, (subtitle: “Why good people are divided by politics and religion”, editor’s note).

He says that one of the main insights he got from his research is that we make moral decisions emotionally first, and then we rationalise them.
He describes it with his metaphor “The Elephant and the Rider”. The elephant being “the unconscious” and the rider being “the conscious mind”. He talks very specifically about the fact that the rider isn’t there to convince you, it’s mainly there to convince other people of your own decision.

You’ve come to a certain value-judgement on something, and that’s what our political beliefs are mainly based on. The rider is like a PR person. Evolutionarily, and still now, it’s super important to protect your reputation. The threat of having a crappy reputation in a tribe of 150 was, potentially… death. If you got kicked out of the tribe, you’re screwed. We needed each other, our lives depended on it. And that is still the case, even though society is a lot different now…we’re a lot more isolated, but we still have that evolutionary wiring.

We depend on our reputations, on each other, people not thinking something of us which will mean us not missing out on opportunities… it’s a big curse because it means that people might not feel confident enough to speak their minds and groupthink can become extremely powerful, sometimes down the wrong path. Look at Nazi Germany, for instance. But thinking about less extreme examples, just look at the science community, and how often its research is biased and owned by those who fund it. There’s an incredible amount of groupthink.

As a former science student and Science lover, it really pained me to realise that the essence of science is often sacrificed for its Ego, which is what you’re talking about. And often when I tried to point this out when I was part of the Science world, I would fail because… well when expressing my opinion in public my body tended to … tremble!  What’s a good grounding practice you might suggest to counteract that?

Breathwork is really good practice for that. The breath connects us back to the present and to the nervous system, calming it. We also do a lot of Circling, that means, talking about what’s coming up between us in the moment. Another very powerful tool is Dialectic enquiry. It shifts the whole conversation. You have to really go there and tell the truth about what you are feeling, which is a revolution for anyone brought up in our society!

What set of practices do you use to ground and connect a group of people?

It’s a relational process, so there’s no clear-cut answer…the process is more fluid and magical. However, David and I have trained as councillors and we use a lot of Diamond Essence work, by A H Almas. He was an engineer at MIT and with a guy called Faisal Muqaddam, they got into spirituality and made a spiritual map of the Ego structure and the Essence.

They say that our strategy to survive in our environment when we grow up is to cover up our real Essence, because it’s not safe to be as free and as out there as a child in our world…you get shut down. We all have different layers of an Ego structure around our Essence. They married Depth Psychology with various Spiritual Traditions, and Enquiry, which is a really powerful talking meditation.

This is how it works: one person sits in front of the other and the listener is in complete stillness and presence: no smile, no laugh, no interjection, nothing. Complete, still presence. The other person just talks for 10/15 min, could be longer, could be 40. As you’re talking in Enquiry, you’re not telling a story nor trying to solve a problem. You’re just being curious, noticing and describing what comes up in your body when talking, so it’s a very embodied practice as well. As you follow the bodily sensations, you’re really going in deep into the subconscious.

Other methods we use are Somatic Experience as created by Peter Levine, Circling, Dialectic Enquiry and Play. Play is an essential element, very important for our social experiments because otherwise we risk being way too serious! We need to have space for flow and spontaneity and for laughter and maybe even messing it up sometimes…

Either way, all of these methods require the utmost Presence… Presence is key here. So at Rebel Wisdom events and retreats, we try and offer the most Present environment for everyone to be able to unpack their subconscious minds, to come into Presence of themselves and their Hearts.

Rebel Wisdom will be at the Boiler House on 24th October with Jamie Wheal for ‘Recapture the Rapture‘.
You can find out more about Rebel Wisdom here.

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21 / 09 / 2019 // Written by Sylvia Helen Goodrick
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