February 7, 2013

Rethinking Awkward Social Engagements. ~ Gregory S. Pettys

I come from a community of neo-hippies who, like the guru-seeking, acid-tripping forefathers before us, strive to create communal environments where everything is shared in order to allow for abundance accessible by all.

And that which is shared reaches far beyond what is growing in our backyards, extending to even our most intimate of possessions, such as the corridors of our hearts.

However, the giving and receiving of our most authentic self is no easy task. It requires a tremendous amount of courage and the ability to overcome the fear of exposing our vulnerabilities.

In looking at our world today, it would seem that one of the major reasons for our unrest—whether it be a seeming lack of resources or the warped chain of shootings that are toxically threading their horror throughout our nations schools—is our inability to come together in real community.

We have drifted so far from the tribal circles in which we once sat together many moons ago that few of us have even a clue how to engage in an open-hearted space of true union.

We offer, at best, a filtered-down imitation of who we really are and, at worst, an awkward, despairingly incapable and socially confused semi-being who does little more to add to collective engagement than a periodic offering of the latest You Tube short streamed from his or her new iPhone.

Nonetheless, I would agree with anyone who believes we need a radical return to community. I applaud those lacking necessary social skills while also interacting communally for their efforts, because it takes this real effort in order to gain genuine community.

An overall lack of community seems to be the core of most of the major issues facing our nation and planet today. It comes as no surprise that what universally binds us all together is the common desires to love and be loved. In the glory days of the American dream, we believed this dance of affectionate give and take was to be experienced in a suburban home filled with Tupperware and 2.5 kids playing football in the neatly mowed lawn surrounded by the white picket fence that little Jimmy painted last summer.

However, we soon learn that good fences don’t actually make the best of neighbors and that, in truth, borders do exactly what they are supposed to do—keep people out, physically and spiritually.

So, what causes real community?

Having a weekly cocktail party? Sure…it’s a good start anyway. But only if we genuinely and consistently offer our authenticity at these shindigs, expressing ourselves fully to one another, exposing our hopes and fears while committing to transparency and openness.

There is nothing easy about this.

For some, interacting with others, even in a superficial way and while hiding conveniently behind an adult beverage is terrifying. Nonetheless, if we are to succeed in attaining that which we all seek, to love and be loved, than we have to rise above our outdated fears and re-meet our neighbors, be they next door or across the world.

I was raised in a family of shy mid-westerners.

Even with all the handy-dandy social crutches of evangelical religion that created an ongoing portrayal of community, I have few memories of my family engaging in real community. The kind of engagement that allows for non-judgmental, consistent and safe exchange of one’s most raw experiences, however sinful they may be,  and provides fertile grounds for growing individual and collective visions for mutual development.

Nonetheless, thanks to the rapidly shifting times we live in, and the growing desire for some sort of return to tribal ways, I have found enriching community all over the world—from the farmlands of Annapurna to the Occupy encampments in Oakland, since leaving my childhood home years ago.

It has inspired me greatly.

I offer here the exciting adventure of shifting one’s perspective, recognizing that most people in the modern developed world deeply crave connection with others, yet avoid it due to their fear of vulnerability and previous communal engagements that went awry.

I, too, have experienced the ugly fears of not wanting to connect because of old wounds unhealed.

Artistic mental manipulation inspired by Buddhism and other quasi-religious practices have allowed me to not only make light of seemingly heavy situations, but to transmute them into powerful tools for self-growth. I’ve gained compassion for others while discovering a renewed excitement to pursue community engagement fully.

Along with the aid of my fellow meandering ski-bums back home in the Colorado mountains, I am slowly sculpting a foundation that allows us nomads to have a yet-to-be-fully-articulated compromise, essentially letting us have our cake and eat it too. In other words, I spend half my year snowboarding the backcountry and half the year guiding gap-year students through Asia.

While at the home where my post office box resides, our community is able to go deep into co-creative becoming. This on-going exercise in group-dynamics is a challenge to do while present, but attempting to participate in the intimate affairs of my community from the incomprehensible madness and exhilaration of, say, India, is damn near impossible.

More often than not, when I leave for my shoulder season expeditions, I essentially cut myself off from the inner workings of hometown and only offer feedback when someone asks for it.

Returning from an extended stay in a foreign land is always a challenge. For anyone who has gone through the strange process of reentry, you may recall the yearning to share all the excitement with a circle of old friends who have no idea what you are talking about.

Often, they are too preoccupied with their own personal adventures to care as deeply about yours as you might wish they would. Life goes on without you. I have learned when you come back home it’s more on you to catch up, than on those who have stayed.

In order for community to work  you must abandon your attachments to having everyone praise you for your achievements and place more interest in theirs.

I recently returned home again from one of these trips, as jet-lagged and culture-shocked as ever. However, this return was different from others as it happened to coincide with the winter solstice. The solstice is always exciting for earth-loving hippies, but this past December was even more so because of December 21, 2012—long been believed by many, particularly the Mayans, to be a day of major transformation of some kind.

Whatever this was to entail, this date had my community overwhelmed with to-do lists that would have, had they been confiscated by authorities years ago, had them burned at the stake for fear that witches might be planning dark magic. And it meant that I was surely not going to find the appropriate reentry buffer zone of quiet reflection generally needed when returning from a major experience abroad.

My first week back home from Asia was overrun by wreath-makers, crystal grid designers, raw foodies, yogis, rainbow bridge meditators and just about every other kind of mountain-worshiping pagan you could imagine. They were all preparing for the big day, the moment of supposed alignment with the galactic center of the universe.

I desperately needed solitude, but community requires compromise and these mountain freaks are my kind of people.

The kind of people Mr. Kerouac would have loved to hang out with. People who are:

“Mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”

Well, it’s all well and good to enjoy the company of exciting people, but it is far from easy to maintain healthy relations with normal people for extended periods of time, much less a community composed of radically eccentric people, one of whom happens to be an ex-lover.

Oh sure, in the beginning, everyone just loves, loves, loves and it is even fun to claim that the unconditioned acceptance will last forever, no matter the circumstances. Unfortunately, as those intrepid beat gypsies and well-intended hippies of yore also discovered, we are all too human.

Once the honeymoon of fresh experience fades, we are forced to look deeper at what is real, not merely ideal.

In between my leaving for Asia and my return to Colorado, my ex-lover had found a new lover.

I was aware of this. In fact, I would be so bold as to say I was ok with it. But I sure as hell didn’t want to hang out with him in my house, and, unfortunately for her new boo, the grand solstice feast was to be held in my home—which meant he was not receiving an invitation.

This came as a great shock to the community, who was convinced that we were radically inclusive and nothing would get between our emotions and our Christ-like ability to radically love. Admittedly, it came as a great shock to me too. Prior to being put in this scenario I felt I could power through it all with enough heart-opening asana, with enough reiki and chiropractic work, with enough pranayama and, you know, communication.

However, it was not so. The first time I laid eyes on her new partner I was enraged and immediately made it clear that he was not allowed anywhere near my domain.

At first, the girl who is now just somebody that I use to know (sorry, I had too) maturely agreed that it was just common sense to give me some space for a bit before including him in our intimate gatherings.

Evidently this agreement soon shifted for her, because in the middle of our holiday dinner, as a young Muslim visitor from Mali was delivering a toast regarding the sacred act of devouring the flesh of the goat we had slaughtered earlier that day, (yes, I get that our world may be a bit more far-out than yours, but it all makes for a great story, one I am sure you will be able to relate to…just bear with me) my ex and her new lover bolted through the front door.

They were both completely naked, resonating violently the unspoken but clearly understood frequency of “F*ck you buddy, don’t tell me what I can and can’t do” and quickly escaped without a word through the back door. Needless to say, I was infuriated.

I was deeply hurt and barely able to think straight.

So I did what any self-respecting man would do in this situation: I started text bombing her with offensive riddles and slimy imagery. It felt good. Our community was doing great.

She was communicating effectively and so was I…um, no. That’s not what happened at all, actually.

The feelings that arose from how I reacted were, in fact, more painful than the pain caused by her bizarre stunt, which only lasted a few seconds and received little response from anyone other than me.

I felt hate, strong hate. I felt violated, my dignity shattered. For weeks afterward I fed the anger until I just about boiled over. Then I received a call from a friend living in Kathmandu studying and living with Tibetans.

Benji is one of kind; nothing seems to faze him. He’s truly detached, like a good Buddhist should be. He enters in and out of intimate relations unaffected, but he shared with me some concerns he noticed rising in him, concerns I also have recognized while traveling in Chinese regions.

He said that he hated the Chinese for what they have done, and are continuing to do, to the Tibetans. I agreed with him. I did too. How could anyone be so brutal to anyone? The mere idea itself brought about rage in us both.

Then it hit me, as abruptly as the solstice streak: I understood exactly how one could act out in such a way.

Given the right circumstances, we all have it in us to bring about just about any human emotion, be it love, sadness, joy or even hate. I had felt it recently, in the socially awkward manifestation of my ex and her current boy toy maliciously running through the holiday dinner.

It made me feel hatred, raw and ugly.

And now, after the dust had settled, speaking with my friend of a situation so seemingly foreign I never thought I could relate, I suddenly was feeling compassion for, of all people, those inflicting oppression upon Tibet.

My seemingly unrelated event, which before this moment appeared to be but a disastrous occurrence justifying why radical community involvement actually does more harm than good, was suddenly offering me insight into a powerful spiritual quality I needed desperately to develop: the boons of forgiveness and empathy.

I was learning from this awkward community gathering that no one simply hates, instead circumstances arise to make us react out of a foul-tasting soup of ignorance, fear and heartbreak.

And I wept.

Suddenly I held a strange and real love for those I had met through my travels, and even for my ex. These people, these mirror-like extensions of our human family, who seem to be mindless and acting out of sheer wickedness and selfish intent, are actually reacting out of a state of deep fear and sadness—a despair far greater than that experienced by the supposed victims of their acts.

I share this bizarre mountain hippy’s holiday tale to offer hope to those who may avoid community engagement because, at one time or another, the experiences were not so good. In looking at seemingly offensive situations in a different light, it is possible to find very useful gifts for your own development, as well as the development your community; even for, as in my case, a profound understanding of an exotic demographic from the other side of the world.

The blessings that come from radical interactions with community are priceless.

They are the fodder for our stories, our mythologies, our sense of belonging and purpose. Even when they aren’t exactly fun, even when they bring about discomforts of the greatest kind, we discover the ashes from which we can shape-shift ourselves. We change from our previously unforgiving, fearful selves into a glorious rising phoenix.

Here we are able to find wisdom regarding our ability to relate with each other with deep understanding and love.

Let’s face it, as much fun as Facebook may be, transmutations and transmissions of this depth are not experienced while interacting with our friends’ timelines, they are known only by radically engaging in real-time and in real community.


Like most 30-something back-country snow bums, Gregory Pettys supports his eccentricity by means of delicately balancing a bizarre cocktail of overseas gap-year guiding, freelance writing, roadside trumpet busking, yoga teaching and wilderness therapy. Recently, he began making candles, which he is sure will be his one way ticket to fame and fortune. When not meandering about the globe in search of the hidden scrolls, he resides in Crested Butte, Co. He can be reached at [email protected].




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Asst. Ed: Amy Cushing
Ed: Bryonie Wise

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