New Culture Perspectives for Everyday Life
It’s 11 p.m. on a cool West Virginia night at New Culture Summer Camp East, where 90 cultural explorers have gathered for 10 days in the woods. Some are asleep in their tents, some are gathered in the big dome, others are chatting in the brightly lit main lodge. As I pass by the kitchen, the tension among the late-night prep crew is palpable. Judy comes over to me and says, “Could you talk to Steve? He thinks he’s helping me out by being here, but he’s really not!”
I tap Steve on the shoulder – “Looks like you’re having a tough time. Let’s talk.” He is furious and resentful – two other shift members did not show up for the late-night prep for the morning’s breakfast, and his partner Judy was trying to handle it by herself. “I don’t know my way around a kitchen, but I couldn’t leave her to do it alone,” he says. I ask him to take a deep breath. “It’s great that you want to help Judy out – but you don’t really want to be there, and your resentment is making it harder for her.”
He looks skeptical. “Let’s think about this,” I continue.“ You’re forcing yourself to do something you don’t want to do. Remember, you are always at choice, and only you are responsible for your own happiness – just like Judy is for hers. I bet I could find someone else who would love to step into the kitchen right now.” I circle the building, putting out the request for good energy in the kitchen, and within minutes I get a volunteer – plus the original shift members, who have now arrived. Steve walks away, incredulous but relieved. No one is “made wrong” because they were late, and laughter and joking soon fill the night.
Being “at choice.” Personal empowerment and responsibility for one’s emotions. Flexibility and non-attachment. Asking for what you want. Contribution and service. No blame, no shame, no guilt. These are some of the values that have emerged over nearly 20 years of Network for a New Culture’s experience as a community.
Most of us in New Culture don’t live together, but we are part of an extended tribe that connects us in an intimate and powerful way. We have no gurus, no dogma, no guiding philosophy or established practices. Instead, our Summer Camp is always described as an experiment – we’ll try anything that looks like it might work, and learn from that experience.
The vision of New Culture is to create a sustainable world based on love, freedom, and community. We explore this by creating gatherings where people explore the big questions about culture re-design – how do we get our food? how do we deal with money? how do we care for kids and elders? how do we handle relationships? – and practice living, loving, working, and having fun together.
At my first New Culture camp in Oregon in 2002, I experienced a depth of kindness, intimacy, and acceptance that I had never thought possible. I made meaningful connections with 100 people and felt a deep intimacy with many of them. My experience the next year was much the same. I felt profound changes in myself – I was more personally powerful, more self-accepting, more heartful and connected. Whatever was being created at New Culture Summer Camp, I wanted more of it!
So in 2004, Michael Rios and I, with four co-organizers, created our first East Coast Summer Camp. We copied the Oregon camp as best we could. With 40 attendees, only a few of whom had been to a New Culture camp before, we didn’t know if we had “cultural critical mass.” Three days later, we looked around at 40 people in a massive cuddle pile sharing from their hearts and gazing into each other’s eyes and said, “It worked! This is New Culture camp!”
This experience taught us that certain perspectives seem to be at the heart of New Culture. We don’t claim any originality for them– many of them have been taught for centuries. However, extended immersion in deep intimate relationships allows these perspectives to emerge in new and interesting ways.
Relationships of all kinds provide an opportunity for healing and personal growth. For instance, someone with a dependent personality who looks to others to meet their needs is likely to be disappointed in relationship. Yet that disappointment (or anger, or sadness, or fear), when explored insightfully, is the doorway to emotional independence; painful emotional reactions show us the places where we have not yet healed.
Without a skilled response, though, emotional reactivity can aggravate
problems among people, and the more people involved, the more the reactivity can intensify and spread. Joe can’t use the kitchen because Susie is cooking dinner – Joe gets mad, Susie gets offended, Lisa tries to intervene but is rebuffed and starts crying, and soon the whole community is in an uproar.
Our experiences over the years have shown us that certain attitudes and practices promote space around reactivity. Curiosity, transparency, gratitude, compassion – all of these require a person to take ownership of their inner reaction and create enough emotional space to think about it. If either Joe, Susie, or Lisa has the skills and empowerment to take an inner “step back” and witness their own process, they can break the cycle of reactivity. And the more skilled each person is in doing this, the more stable the community as a whole becomes.
With 90 people exploring intimacy and relationship, and living / working / playing together for 10 days or more, we can certainly count on a wide range of emotional reactions and growth opportunities to arise. At camp there are dozens of fellow travelers who have learned many ways of growing from reactions, and who are happy to model and guide new ways of being. People often experience great leaps in personal power, freedom and happiness during camp – and the strong extended community helps this continue all year long.
Over the years, we’ve noticed that the perspectives that we have gleaned from New Culture camps all seem to depend on one core practice: radical, compassionate acceptance of all parts of ourselves and of others. We have learned that every perspective and every voice has something of value to contribute and is beautiful when seen as one part of the great symphony of being human.
Walter walks up to me while I’m checking campers in. He’s angry. “Why did I get assigned to work shifts on Tuesday? Can’t they be on another day?” I immediately feel defensive; his bad teeth and strident manner put me off. “Well, I can’t change your shifts – we have no one else to cover them.” We go back and forth a few times; finally Walter walks away unhappy.
On the third day of camp, in our daily ZEGG Forum – where the community gathers and creates a “stage” for anyone to show themselves more deeply – Walter stands up to talk about his life. “I don’t understand people,” he says, pacing around in the middle of the circle of seated watchers. “I’ve never known how to get along with people – everyone seems to get it but I’m not in on the secret.” It dawns on me that I have seen this before in people with Asperger’s syndrome. Walter doesn’t perceive social cues – he doesn’t know how to tell when the person he’s talking to is angry, bored, interested, or deeply moved. “I really wanted to go to tomorrow’s workshop, because it’s all about relationships and I thought I could finally learn something there.” His anger makes sense now; he had wanted so much to tackle his lifelong problem. His sharing creates empathy in all of us, and several campers volunteer to be his replacement the next day.
Walter stays with us through camp takedown. On the first morning of takedown, a helper has an emotional meltdown and leaves camp angrily, creating emotional chaos for the rest of us. Walter, though, is an island of calm – the emotional interplay passes right through him. I spend the day with him taking down tents – his measured, objective approach is exactly what I need. Later that evening, six or seven of us sit with him and brainstorm ways he can employ his considerable intellect to connect better in social situations. My time with Walter is the highlight of this year’s camp for me.
Listening to Walter opened up a space of curiosity and compassion, and helped me past my initial reactivity to an appreciation of the skills and needs of someone very different from myself.
One critical exercise of personal power is what we call “being at choice.” This means that at every moment, you are making the choice to continue with what you are doing or to shift and choose something else. Many societies attempt to control their members through guilt and obligation – “You agreed to this, so you have to follow through!” Yet we often make agreements based on how we feel at a particular moment, and when the moment changes, our desires may change as well.
When people force themselves to continue on a no-longer-desired course, the inner conflict can lead to such negative feelings that the original intention is undermined, as with Steve’s experience in the kitchen. Too often, people are afraid to re-negotiate their obligations, for a variety of reasons – and consequently, simple solutions to problems go unrecognized. In New Culture, we encourage people to acknowledge that their desires have shifted and to re-negotiate their commitments at any time. The result is that people are following their joy rather than their obligation. Work, relationships, and other undertakings flow without tension because everyone is there by choice, and can walk away if they wish. This creates a magical energy that draws people in, rather than pushing them away.
Even the concept of commitment, which in mainstream society is never allowed to be questioned, is subjected to critical exploration. One novel way to look at commitment is that it amounts to substituting a judgment made by our younger, less experienced and possibly less wise self for the fully-informed judgment of our current, older, more experienced self.
I’m sitting next to Alice just before the start of Morning Circle. The sun is already hot and bright on the white tarps covering our geodesic dome. Her body is slumped in a chair. “I’m so exhausted … don’t know how I’m going to handle my lunch prep shift this morning. Mark and I stayed up all night talking … what an amazing connection! But now I’m going to pay for it.”
I can hear the self-blame in her voice. “Why don’t you ask for someone to take your shift? Kevin did yesterday when he wasn’t feeling well.”
“Oh, I couldn’t do that! Kevin was sick – I was just stupid!”
“Just give it a try – you chose to follow your excitement when you stayed up so late, and you may find that other folks support you in your choice.”
At announcement time, Alice stands up and tentatively asks,“Could anyone take my kitchen shift this morning? I could trade for any other day … I’m just so exhausted today!” Three hands go up. Marie calls out, “I’d be glad to – Claire is cooking today and I want to spend time with her!” Despite Alice’s protests, Marie refuses to assign one of her other shifts to Alice. “This is my gift – pass it along if you like.” Gratefully, Alice heads off to her tent for a nap.
Because of our practice of radical acceptance at camp, we have been able to include in our community people who have been forced to leave various other events and gatherings because of their behavior. What makes this possible is the community’s empowered stance: clear communication, good personal boundary-setting, curiosity about others, and transparency about what we need and where we are struggling. And rather than being a strain on others, this radical acceptance becomes a benefit to the camp as a whole.
When Bruce shows up to help with camp setup, he’s cheerful and willing to help, but his thinking is fuzzy, he doesn’t get social cues, and he’s impulsive. Three days into camp, we start getting complaints about him from other campers. “Bruce is stalking me. He followed me to my tent and hung around outside. I don’t feel safe. Can someone escort me around camp?” Other women say the same thing, and report that he has touched them without permission. One man comes to us in fierce protective anger for his girlfriend’s sake. Some are demanding that we kick him out.
We sit down with Bruce and try to explain how inappropriate his actions are. He is confused. “I was just trying to be friendly … other people were touching her, I thought it was OK.” “Did she say ‘no’?” “No, I don’t think so …?” We realize that he is not getting the message that the women he has followed and touched did not want that contact with him – and we also realize that they did not deliver that message in a way that he could understand, with unambiguous direct words.
Bruce gets up in ZEGG Forum the next day and starts talking about what it’s like to be him. “I’ve been kicked out of so many groups… Everyone else is connecting and touching, and I just don’t know how to do it.” Bruce’s confusion and desire for intimacy shine through his words. When he sits down, Michael offers a reflection: “Bruce simply cannot get nonverbal cues. If we want to help him stay here at camp, we need to give him clear verbal feedback about our boundaries. If he still breaks clear verbal boundaries, he’s on notice that we’ll ask him to leave. But let’s see what happens if we give him clarity.”
From that day on, there is a shift in camp. I watch as he approaches a woman in the main meeting space. “Can I sit next to you and hug you?” “You can sit next to me, but I don’t want you to hug me.” “OK.” The women have stepped into their power and are giving him clear directions, and he is respecting their desires. Camp proceeds with no further incidents from him.
The understanding and compassion that arose during Forum inspired greater personal responsibility and clearer boundaries from the women. Initially, they saw themselves as victims of an abuser. As their understanding of Bruce shifted, their understanding of themselves shifted as well from victims to powerful actors – they realized that in this situation, they could choose to act as mentors, providing clear, compassionate feedback on his actions. Bruce’s difficulties became an opportunity for many women at camp to practice “being in charge” and speaking from their power.
Since New Culture is not primarily a residential community, it is our practices and insights that hold the New Culture community together and create our characteristically strong sense of family. They permeate and define all the different ways in which New Culture manifests itself: immersion camps, weekend gatherings, evening events, spontaneous informal get-togethers, and intentional communities that have built themselves on these insights.