Tribes; Losing and Rediscovering Kinship in a Time of Widening Polarization

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There is a natural inclination for people with similar characteristics and like-mindedness to congregate. We are tribal beings after all.

Our tribes enabled humans to survive hostilities over the eons.  Even the challenges we face today draw us to those of similar status and values. It is in these modern day tribes that we form comfortable bonds of friendship. Our social networks, business and community groups welcome us.  We are nurtured and provided with a sense of belonging and kinship.

Over the past few years there has been a call from authors and social scientists to ‘find your tribe’ due to increasing isolation in the internet age. But there is a worrisome downside to all of this as well. In his book, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, Bill Bishop provides a breakdown of how our tribes are making it far less likely for us to consider views different from our own.

He points out that when we are surrounded by people who agree with us, our views become more and more resolute and extreme. We tend to denounce those who are different and competing ideas are considered invalid. In tribal extremes, binary or dualistic thinking becomes dominant and inclusivity becomes almost impossible.

Our First Tribes; That Old Gang of Mine

We don’t get to choose our family tribe, but as children move out from home to school, and the community at large, we begin to form attachments, and friendships emerge through play. These relationships influence behavior and we become powerfully motivated to be a part of a peer group.  We form what I call a chosen tribe.

My own consisted of neighbor boys, all about seven years of age, and who lived within the confines of a city block.  Our beliefs were dualistic. We determined what was good, bad, moral, evil, acceptable and unacceptable.  Good guys wore white hats.  Americans were moral. Nazi’s and The Imperial Japanese Navy were evil. Protestants were acceptable and those with other religious beliefs unacceptable (and probably going to hell).

Our first challenge to ‘us versus them’ binary thinking came when two Roman Catholic kids were admitted to our gang.  We liked them and they were good at baseball. Our parents were okay with it even though we were not allowed to go to their church nor were we invited to ours. This ever so slight shift in the dominant view actually began to open each of us to the prospect of including others.

Despite later adolescent fear of being ostracized and rejected for ever-expanding and diversifying our choice of friends, each of the original tribe became young men who accepted and honored differences in others. And it has continued into our middle and old age. Tribes can open us or close us up.

Our Oneness and Common Bonds

So how can any of us embrace uniqueness found in tribes while recognizing, including and honoring diversity and differences? An answer can be found in spiritual and scientific oneness. For example, while finger prints may point to uniqueness, our DNA connects us to a widening family of people and places beyond our imagination.

Jesus challenges his followers through word and personal example to include the poor, the sick, the tax collector, the rich, and the despised into a great banquet feast.  He asks us to love neighbor as self. If we want to make a society work it must be expanded beyond, while not excluding, the tribes that make us feel safe and welcomed.

Finding the things that unite us and underscoring our sacred humanity is the key to kinship. But this will require an openness to do so.  Our deep divisions in politics, religion, economics (and seemingly every other facet of life) play out on television and social media every day.

“One thing we know – there is only one God. No man, be he Red man or White man, can be apart. We ARE all brothers after all.” ~ Chief Seattle

 I was watching an interview with Joseph Campbell by Bill Moyers when I first heard the words of Chief Seattle’s 1855 letter to the U.S. President. Those interviews, called The Power of Myth, were presented on PBS.

It was inspiring to hear his wisdom and insight regarding global inclusiveness.  Not that the concept was foreign to me in 1990, but striking how polarized and dualistic we remained 135 years after the letter had been penned.

Now, another 28 years has passed and the situation has grown worse in so many ways.  However, I got a promising glimpse of our oneness when watching the funeral service of former First Lady Barbara Pierce Bush on April 21, 2018. I mention her middle name because she is a cousin of President Franklin Pierce, who was the recipient of Chief Seattle’s letter.

In attendance at the funeral were the current First Lady and four former Presidents as well as dignitaries from extremes of political and philosophical persuasion.  It occurred to me that perhaps neither time nor our humanity has separated us so much after all. Campbell used to talk about how important it is to have the experience of sacred spaces. Such a sacred space was evident in Houston at the celebration of Mrs. Bush.

I could almost hear Joe Campbell reminding us that; “where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; and where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”

Sacred Spaces and Welcoming Places

There are ways to create these sacred spaces which I believe will connect us to the God of our understanding and widen our scope of oneness with all of creation.  We might not be like Moses who heard his name being called and found a bush which was burning but not consumed by flames in a place that was made holy.  But we can answer God in the spirit of Moses by proclaiming as he did; “Here I am.”

The personal experience of disciplined, practiced prayer and meditation is a means by which we can create a sacred space in higher consciousness for listening and connecting within.  It is a way of shutting off the binary, dualistic brain.  Richard Rohr, the Franciscan contemplative teacher says that “The lowest level of consciousness is entirely dualistic (win/lose)—me versus the world and basic survival. Many, I am afraid, never move beyond this. The higher levels of consciousness are more and more able to deal with contradictions, paradoxes, and all Mystery (win/win). This is spiritual maturity.

At the higher levels, we can teach things like compassion, mercy, forgiveness, selflessness, even love of enemies. Any good contemplative practice quickly greases the wheels of the mind toward non-dual consciousness. This is exactly why saints can overlook offenses and love enemies!” We make ourselves fully present saying, “Here I am.”

The very Tribes to which we feel drawn to for belonging, comfort and safety can be a means of re-connecting and of decreasing our dangerous climate of polarization. As members of the group we have the authority to be leaders.  First and foremost, we can help each other to stop worrying about what other people think about us. We can begin to talk about similarities of those whom we have opposed. We can collaborate with other teams at work.  We can explore positive aspects of the culture we want to see more of.  We can begin to establish associations with individuals who are different.

Expanding our tribes will not come through logical arguments or sound reasoning. It will come through a building of individual connections. It can happen just as it did for my little gang of boys so many years ago when we found out that two strange kids were ‘good at baseball’. We will always find that we are not really very different. And at long last…what a fine Tribe we might be.

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Robert Kenneth Jones is an innovator in the treatment of addiction and childhood abuse.

In a career spanning over four decades, his work helping people recover from childhood abuse and addiction has earned him the respect of his peers.

His blog, An Elephant for Breakfast, testifies to the power of the human spirit to overcome the worst of life’s difficulties. We encourage you to visit and share this rich source of healing, inspiration and meditation.

Contact Bob Jones on Linkedin

Bob Jones’ blog An Elephant for Breakfast


Mindfulness For Everyday Peace; How meditation, prayer and contemplation are shaping our world

by Robert Kenneth Jones

The practice of Mindfulness is moving the nation along a path to gentle revolution. 

I recently watched the 2017 documentary ‘Mindfulness Goes Mainstream’ from PBS and learned that the transformative influence of mindfulness along with Centering Prayer, yoga and other disciplined practices is spreading throughout our country. This has been brewing for a long time but is now emerging as a proven way for relieving stress, offering tools for pain management and providing techniques for increasing focus while improving productivity.

Mindfulness has been embraced by America’s biggest corporations, the Armed Services, police departments, and our school systems.  Evidence-based studies conclude that it is having a positive effect on personal health. It should be no surprise that these methods once limited to Eastern religions and old hippies are now being embraced by millions of ordinary people who are trying to survive an increasingly complex and hectic world.

So what is mindfulness anyway?

My personal experiences with it have led me to the following explanation; Mindfulness is a psychological state of heightened moment-to-moment awareness through specific practices and disciplines such as meditation and contemplative prayer.  It is about achieving a state of mind that is centered in the present and devoid of judgment (the past) and worry (the future).

Most of us begin to feel like we are spending our whole lives trying to get by. This realization seeps into consciousness somewhere around age 40.  You start to develop uneasiness about the secret desperation that you have been hiding for so long. The things that were so important yesterday seem shallow and meaningless today.  You look fine on the outside but are crumbling on the inside.  You just know there has to be a better way to live more fully. This is when turning to mindfulness is so useful. Andy Puddicombe, the co-founder of Headspace, a digital health platform, describes the transformative power of doing just that by devoting only ten minutes a day simply by being mindful and experiencing the present moment.

Mindfulness in the Workplace

Corporations such as General Mills, Aetna, Target and Google are using mindfulness to improve innovative thinking, communication skills and more appropriate reactions to stress.  They have built extensive programs to foster mindful practices among employees and have seen benefits and improvements in employee health, productivity and job satisfaction. Leadership courses have been developed which use mindfulness as the touchstone of success.

Mindfulness in the Military

The United States Marines are embracing mindfulness and report remarkable results. Marines who took an eight-week course in the basics of mindfulness recovered from stress faster following an intense training session that replicated battlefield conditions. Four platoons underwent the standard training regimen to prepare for combat. Members of the other four additionally received eight weeks of mindfulness-based mind fitness training. This consisted of 20 hours of classroom time plus homework: Participants were asked to complete “at least 30 minutes of daily mindfulness and self-regulation exercises.”

The Marines were assessed at the beginning and end of the eight-week program, and again a week or so later after they completed a highly stressful, day-long training exercise at a special facility designed to replicate combat conditions. This training required them to respond to an enemy ambush.

Afterward, 54 Marines who had undergone mindfulness training and 53 who did not undergo a series of medical tests. They revealed that the heart and breathing rates of the mindful Marines returned to normal faster than those of the control group members. Brain scans on a subset of 40 Marines also found differences between the two groups. Focusing on several parts of the brain implicated in cognitive control and emotion regulation, the researchers found exposure to emotional faces produced less activation. There is a reason to believe that this method of strengthening mental and emotional resilience will even reduce to incidence of PTSD for veterans.

Mindfulness in the Law Enforcement

Law enforcement officers and first responders have been engaging in mindfulness programs and practices for about ten years.  In a pilot study conducted by Oregon police officer Richard Goerling and Michael Christopher of Pacific University, officers who learned mindfulness skills reported “significant improvement in self-reported mindfulness, resilience, police and perceived stress, burnout, emotional intelligence, difficulties with emotion regulation, mental health, physical health, anger, fatigue, and sleep disturbance.” This echoes some of the research from an earlier study, which found that police officers who went through mindfulness training experienced less depression in their first year of service. This approach is certainly preparing LEO’s and first responders with better ways to handle their emotional stressors in an era where they face increasing violence every day.

Mindfulness in the Classroom

Our public and private schools are using mindfulness practices to help students deal with stress, the threat of gun violence, bullying, and classroom restlessness.  Two different studies were done by Cheryl Desmond, Ph.D., and Laurie Hanich, Ph.D., of middle school children who had taken the “Wellness Works in Schools” mindfulness-based course showed significant gains in self-regulation and executive function.

Discipline problems become teachable moments for kids who have learned how to use mindfulness.  Dennie Doran, head of the Upper School at the Nantucket New School and a teacher there has been at the school for nine years.  She definitely sees a “before” and “after” effect since they began teaching mindfulness. “We have a common language from the 3-year-olds to the 14-year-olds. ‘Was that a mindful decision?’ ‘Did you think about your choice?’ ‘Stop and take a breath.’ So that by the time the lower school gets to the upper school we’re dealing with teachable moments instead of discipline problems. They’re learning self-awareness and then making choices based on that self-awareness.”

Perhaps we are entering a new age in schools not rooted in hardening or softening them but in helping students and teachers to find deeper and more meaningful connections with self and others.

A few of the many benefits of Mindfulness:

Pope Francis relates to mindfulness and Centering Prayer as “serene attentiveness” which approaches life by being fully present to someone without thinking of what comes next, which accepts each moment as a gift from God to be lived to the full.  He reminds Christians that “Jesus taught this attitude when he invited us to contemplate the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, or when seeing the rich young man and knowing his restlessness, he looked at him with love.  He was completely present to everyone and to everything, and in this way; he showed us the way to overcome that unhealthy anxiety which makes us superficial, aggressive and compulsive consumers.”

Mindfulness at Home

I have found that mindfulness enables me to experience every moment.  There is an ever-present opportunity to step into a moment and find peace.  I have grown in deeper, loving awareness of the wonders of creation and in my connectedness with other people.  I don’t live in the past or worry about the future (for the most part…I’m working on it). Gradually, I have come to believe in the truth of The Serenity Prayer and that we are all here, on earth, in the peaceful presence of the Creator. Thanks at least in part to mindfulness. So, get quiet, sit up straight, close your eyes…now take a deep breath in and let it out.  There.  You are on your way to practicing mindfulness.

Photo by Lesly Juarez on Unsplash

Robert Kenneth Jones is an innovator in the treatment of addiction and childhood abuse.

In a career spanning over four decades, his work helping people recover from childhood abuse and addiction has earned him the respect of his peers.

His blog, An Elephant for Breakfast, testifies to the power of the human spirit to overcome the worst of life’s difficulties. We encourage you to visit and share this rich source of healing, inspiration and meditation.

Contact Bob Jones on Linkedin

Bob Jones’ blog An Elephant for Breakfast