Justine Huxley reflects on the impact online work is having on our collective brains, and shares how St Ethelburga’s is innovating new online facilitation tools and looking forward to a future of hybrid events which touch into both local and global dimens ions.
As we ride the second wave of the pandemic and once again curb some of our person to person contact for the long haul, at St Ethelburga’s, we are taking this moment to digest what we have learned about online work, and thinking creatively about the potential of hybrid events to maximise impact. Online life has brought some fascinating opportunities and unusual challenges, and this seems like a good time to review some of our learning, remember some highlights and share a few ideas for the future of building community resilience, online.
Has Zoom changed you?
Like many communities, when we shifted to home working and daily team meetings on zoom, our organisational dynamics also shifted, and some conditioned structures began to dissolve. There’s something about screen interaction which has the potential to level our differences and free up a less hierarchical way of being. It also broke down traditional boundaries between work life and home as we got to meet each other’s bookshelves, kids and cats (often unintentionally!)
Some of us still mourn the loss of subtle body language cues, the limbic resonance we offer each other in real life meetings, and suffer from zoom fatigue. Others feel quietly liberated, noticing the way zoom can free us from the tendency to be sucked into others personal psychologies, and delight in clearer boundaries and more independent minds. Either way, I have the feeling the synapses in our brain are working in new ways!
Like others, we are also revelling in the sudden joy of becoming international in our reach – with people from all over the world joining in our events, bringing new flavours and twists to working in diverse groups. Our open mic night was the first programme that transformed from a handful of Londoners to well over a hundred poets, singers and rap artists all over the world. We rapidly built this into our new strategy, exploring the possibility of twinning relationships with frontline organisations in the global south and getting closer to like minded communities in other continents (such as the Centre for Spiritual Imagination in New York), who we hope to learn with and mutually support.
Many things are possible
With rapidly honed online facilitation skills we have found sensitive reconciliation processes do still work and that we can cover extremely difficult topics like racism and colonisation without losing depth. We have translated intense residential processes into online happenings and hosted retreats which mix teaching, peer dialogue, and prayer in textured and creative ways. We’ve also experienced the potential of being together/alone – alternating meeting time with self-study and reflective practice while staying connected online.
One of St Ethelburga’s aims has always been to turn diverse groups of individuals into connected, organic communities, webs of relationships and a container to hold the work of reconciliation. This is harder online for sure, but we are finding out what works. There are also ways to solve the difficulty of informal networking, for example by building in ‘needs and offers circles’ which enable participants to reach out to others to build spontaneous connections.
Personally, I’ve loved the challenge of translating St Ethelburga’s facilitation style into the online space. Fun highlights for me have included: a night walk built into a resilience retreat, where we watched moonlit pathways, trees and street lights unfold in front of us as our participants walked into their respective nightfalls in countries that included Switzerland, South Africa and Norway; and a chaotic game of ‘zoom snap’ competing to find as many objects in our home environment we could match with others. (And of course one major advantage is that if you host a birthday celebration for a colleague you get to eat the surprise cake on their behalf).
The wacky stuff
Maybe Zoom even has the potential to teach us that we are connected on more subtle levels that don’t require physical presence. Over lockdown, I saw an osteopath discover she could treat people who were hundreds of miles away – her laptop resting on an empty treatment couch, and her client experiencing the same results. Perhaps imagination and intention can play a part in this? A Buddhist once told me about a monk who had been rendered disabled after an accident and was in a wheelchair. His teacher had told him to continue doing his physical prostration practice in his mind, and the doctors found his muscles strengthened as if he was doing the prostrations in reality. When we link our imaginations with a virtual connection we can find ways to compensate for the loss of IRL (in real life) limbic resonance and evolve ways to do things we thought could only be done in person. Which probably explains why the first time a friend offered me a zoom hug, embracing me on her screen, I really felt it!
If we pay attention and have an open mind, Zoom might be able to help us re-learn more subtle non-local forms of connection that were probably common knowledge for our ancestors. As human beings go further down the route of merging with our tech, becoming transhumans, could the global interconnected nature of our technology also reawaken a more ancient innate ability to communicate with the wider web of life?
I’m also still intrigued by the phenomena many of us noticed during lockdown, of feeling more deeply rooted to a specific place, by virtue of a more intimate relationship with our home, garden and immediate neighbourhood, and simultaneously experiencing an expanded global web of relationships online. For me this not only brought with it an enhanced sense of intuition, but had a feeling of rightness – as if two axes within me had come together in the right place, forming a strange new taste of uniting ‘somewhere and anywhere’.
Merging online and real life
As we step into this new longer-term version of semi-lockdown, we are seeking to weave these two dimensions together in our projects and in our venue hire business. Our physical centre in the past has been the bedrock of our work. It’s history gifted us the four principles which underpin our work. The Bedouin Tent was built as an intimate space for brave conversations, and there is a certain magic under the flagstones of the church that we really miss. We are hungry for face to face contact after so long, and pleased to be hosting events in smaller configurations, safely, within the new government guidelines. Like many organisations, we know that going back to a purely IRL model is unlikely. We don’t want to lose the flexibility and international reach that online allows. So our focus now is on extending the same creativity to the design of hybrid events which mix in-person and virtual elements. These present fascinating challenges on the level of facilitation, logistics and tech. Once again, we are finding many things are possible and that there are opportunities within the crisis.
Gradually, we are bringing our physical centre back into our work, as a personality and a presence. For education, training, work or worship events, we are covid secure and can host up to 30 people in the nave and more spread across the Tent and elsewhere in the centre. So our plan is to continue facilitating online programmes, but some will be hosted from the centre so we can share that sense of being rooted in the story of a specific place.
We’ll use hand held cameras and mics to enable individual participants in our in-person audiences to have an equal profile with others online, and are devising a menu of innovative hybrid event models. These include new configurations such as ‘the Ethel Spider’ (small groups in the tent, nave and aisle, but linked up together with each other and others online via zoom) and the ‘remote spider’ for retreats and hire events (unlimited small in-person groups in different locations, linked up online). This way participants can benefit from safe face to face interaction, coupled with a bigger international online audience.
We hope to partner with other spiritual centres in the UK and internationally, allowing participants to choose a beautiful faith-based location for all their small pods, and limit travel on public transport. We’ll be mixing together inspiring international online speakers, with small IRL peer groups. We’ll be supporting the self-study elements with brand new online toolkits and resources. We can also encourage people to apply for our online programmes in pairs, small groups or teams, in order to safely build in face to face learning buddies within an online environment. Lastly, we’ll be trying out new ways to do worship and reflective practice that aim to connect us to a global reality and the intimate depths of our own hearts simultaneously. It will be an experiment in going deeper into intimacy and place, while also reaching out at global scale, forging new powerful networks that can help leaders ignite the courage needed to navigate these times.
The business bit
We’ll soon be offering a new creative event management service to help our venue hire customers recognise the full range of possibilities and options within our new covid secure environment. Once we’ve got stuck in, we’ll also see if we can share our facilitation tips and tricks in training workshops.
The last word
We know now more than ever that we are in this together, so hope to travel with you on this new step in our collective journey. We’d love to hear your feedback and stories. Tell us your own zoom experiences – good and bad – and let us know what works and what doesn’t. If you’d like to discuss becoming an international partner in order to offer mutual support in this new global landscape, get in touch. And if you’re a new transhuman V2.0 with an interesting perspective to share, we’d love to hear from you!
Finally, this is great opportunity to remind everyone that Fat Larry’s Band predicted this moment all the way back in the 80s.