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Co-Intelligence Wakes Up in a Fertilizer Factory

Ever since I was a child, I wanted to make the world a better place. I was raised in a progressive family and participated actively in the political and cultural intensity of the 1960s. For two decades, I worked with numerous organizations bent on saving the world through political action, personal transformation or both. But I became increasingly frustrated with their dysfunction and combativeness. My efforts to change them and to build bridges between them were largely fruitless. Still, I carried on in my activist efforts, not knowing where else to turn to help remedy the tragedies of civilization.

Then came the cross-country Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament, a true watershed event in my life. The peace march -- a mobile tent city of 400 people walking across the U.S. -- was an exercise in daily interdependence and direct democracy. I suddenly found myself living lessons I had learned from ancient spiritual traditions and the leading edge of science -- that we are all connected; we are all co-creators of the seamless fabric of life.

The more I reflected on this, the more it seemed to me that our social and environmental problems arise from our behaving as if we are separate from each other and nature. The march also opened my eyes to the fact that adversarial activism fails to take interconnectedness seriously -- and that social change work grounded in interconnectedness looks very different from what many activists are used to.

And then I saw something that transformed my world. I began to sense larger, deeper forms of intelligence that we are all part of, that we are all co-creating, and that flow through us.

I remember the day I had my first inklings that intelligence might be more than how smart each of us is individually. It was in early June 1986, three months into the Great Peace March. We had embarked from Los Angeles in March 1986 as a dramatic mobile public relations event with a cast of 1200 marchers and staff. Two weeks later our parent organization, ProPeace, went bankrupt, abandoning us in the Mojave Desert. 800 marchers went home. 400 of us stayed. Somehow, we managed to reorganize ourselves and walk across the country, united only by our compelling vision of global nuclear disarmament and our determination to reach our country's capital.

Our leadership could not have been more tenuous, conflicted and diffuse. Our governing councils had virtually no power to enforce their decisions. By all traditional logic, the whole operation should have just fallen apart and blown away. There was no way it should have been able to work or survive. But it did. And in the process, it became an extraordinary crucible for personal and collective learning and transformation.


The fertilizer factory

Among the scores of life-changing incidents on that peace march, one day in particular stands out in my mind:

After three months on the road, our mobile community had become deeply divided. Some marchers were adamant that we should all march together to make a good impression and attract positive publicity. Others wanted to walk at their own pace, strung out along the road, attuned to the beauty of nature and stopping to chat with farmers and schoolchildren. Advocates of each approach saw the other approach as a threat to the march's peace-making mission. The situation started to get nasty. People threatened to leave the march unless they got their way. Then a simple miracle occurred.

Somewhere in Colorado, a heavy late-after-noon storm drenched us as we tried to pitch our multicolored tents in a soggy field near a fertilizer factory. The storm became a deluge. Hundreds of us retreated into the smelly, cavernous confines of the factory. As we stood there dripping and jostling, joking and complaining about our lives, we noticed a couple of marchers setting up a microphone and portable speakers. When the makeshift sound system was ready, they suggested we use this time to speak from our hearts about the issue that divided us. So we did that.

Taking two minutes each, we shared passion and perspective with one another for more than two hours - weeping, cajoling, steaming and sweating in the muggy fetid air. Quite unexpectedly, as we talked and listened with great intensity, the answer to our problem began to emerge. We knew we had fully heard one another when the answer became as obvious as the rain on the sheet-metal roof.

All of us realized what we would do for the next few months: we would walk together through the cities (where there were rushing crowds, traffic, and media) and strung out in the countryside (where farmers and children had time to talk and nature had time to be beautiful). It was so simple, and it handled all our concerns.

On cue, the storm subsided. We dispersed into the glistening dusk, a healed community ready to continue on our path together.

As I headed across the flooded campsite to my tent, my mind was racing. I realized that something amazing had just happened, something so subtle I had almost missed it: In spite of all our talking, we had not made a decision. We had just stopped talking when we knew.


"The March Mind"

In the months that followed, we were orches-trated by our newly shared understanding. We called it "city mode/country mode." Like iron filings arrayed by a magnetic field, each of us manifested the orientation of the whole with nobody policing it. We even understood why a few marchers marched to a different drummer, and we did not hassle them about it.

I had never before been in a meeting like the one that generated this alignment. Nobody had been in charge. It was as if we had become a single sentient being, "The March," and our diverse thoughts and feelings had become the thoughts and feelings of this single but ambivalent March-mind wrestling with its problem. Increasingly, as the meeting unfolded, I had heard other marchers voice the thoughts in my head and the feelings in my heart. I had begun to sense us all sailing on a river of meaning that we had called up from our collective depths. It carried us to exactly the place we needed to go.


"Let us put our minds together..."

Five months later the march was over. November leaves twittered in chilly gusts as we said tearful good-byes and our last Maryland campground slowly emptied. Only a few dozen tents remained when I headed home, with my life and my awareness profoundly changed. I was haunted by an inchoate vision, an inkling of possibility I could not quite put my finger on.

I wrote:

I can't shake the feeling that I'm witnessing a metaphorical dawn, that the darkness is giving way, that in the next few years I will see the edge of the sun and know that we, as a planet, have made it.

In the decade since then, I searched intently for the path I knew was there. In 1992, I was browsing through Jerry Mander's In the Absence of the Sacred, when a quote leapt off the page. It was from Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onandaga Iroquois, describing traditional tribal councils. He said, "We meet and just keep talking until there's nothing left but the obvious truth." That was it! That was what had happened to us on the march.

I wondered: What is it that the Iroquois have known about for centuries, that I only "discovered" on the Great Peace March in 1986? Why don't we do it more often? As smart as we are individually, we are so seldom intelligent together. Brilliant, angry activists get in one another's way. Powerful nations squabble themselves into oblivion. Once-successful organizations shrink and vanish, unable to respond to change.

Further investigation led me to see that these tragedies have something to do with our using intelligence in isolated ways, for our own ends, engaging only a piece of ourselves. I realized that "truths" we find with our individual smarts are inevitably partial. But I also saw that we can transcend that limitation. The answers we need lie in our own wholeness, and in our interconnections with each other and the world. Maybe if we were to take our wholeness and interconnectedness seriously, engaging our full selves, together with each other and the world around us, we would discover wiser, greater truths and saner, more joyous ways of living. And we could co-create a better future together.

In the beginning, my search turned up a variety of ways that we can use to work together better in our groups, organizations, and communities. As I continued the process, I began to discover that there are ways that we can begin to apply these principles to our larger political processes as well, in order to begin to create a truly better world for everyone.

The more I learned, the more I discovered that thousands of people are holding pieces of this emerging puzzle. I was determined to understand how their many approaches and insights fit together. That exploration has produced this book. It has also changed me, profoundly. Now I do believe I see the edge of the sun. We have not made it yet, as a species. But, finally, I know that we can.

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