Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Lynn Hoffman - Cloudwork

Reading the following piece by Lynn Hoffman is like joining into the midst of an ongoing conversation, the reader is not necessarily party to to the prior conversation pieces. Rather than attempting to create an introduction that would provide adequate context for what is written, I decided to leave it the way it is. Just suffice it to know that this piece was written by Lynn to be read (by another person) at the occasion of her 85th birthday celebration.

In this short piece, Lynn (in a manner that has been so typical of her entire career) draws together strands of thought and work, creating a rhizome space which both honours and generates relationship. Also, in the context of such relationships, we are able to gain a richer understanding of the work we are engaged in.


Peggy, Sarah (I remember you!), Bonnie, Kevin – Your responses filled me like a helium balloon, and I have to tether myself to keep from going off into the wide blue yonder. This is very bouncy stuff.

First let me address the question about why I chose those Pillars of Wisdom. They stand for our special Ancestors who recently died: Harry, Tom and Michael. I give each a memory phrase: “not knowing” for Harry Goolishian (of course, Harlene Anderson first described its genesis); “reflecting team” for Tom Andersen, which is what he and his followers became famous for; and “witnessing,” which Michael White added. Even though Michael took the format of the reflecting team from Tom, the idea of “witnessing” enlarged it, allowing him to bring in an anthropological perspective based on the work of the American researcher Barbara Meyerhoff, who had shown the healing effect that ritualized remembrances have on the lives of uprooted persons.

I also connect the Ancestor concept with Bruce Chatwin’s “The Song Lines,” which describes the walkabouts that Australian aborigines take to familiarize themselves with landscapes or creatures that are part of their history. They call these Ancestors, and make amazing pointillist pictures of them, with names like Lizard Dreaming. While walking they will sing a song describing what “lines” or pathways the Ancestor stood for.

Sarah, thanks for pointing out how puzzled people with psychology or social work backgrounds feel when reading works by people who don’t tell you “how.” It sounds like Alice, who threw the whole deck up in the air at the end of Wonderland, saying, “You’re nothing but a pack of cards?” Yes, but then how do you play the game?

For this reason, I have always been interested in close study of practices. Ellen Landis, a dance therapist, is getting a doctorate in Expressive Arts Therapy at Leslie College, and has transcribed six workshop meetings with therapists who work with traumatized people, first giving them a questionnaire on Compassion Fatigue and then repeating it at the end. In most of the sessions, Ellen brought in art materials: bits of cloth, colored paper, stars, which she asked the group to use in expressing their reactions, whether to the questionnaire, or to the situations they worked with. The meetings had an unusually positive effect on people, even though the last one ended with disappointment (a mild social action piece that was left to the end and seemed to wither on the vine). Ellen and I taped conversations about each session, trying to see what Ellen did that was special.

In her workshops, Ellen also used an exercise that we called “Sharevision,” a practice that was born at People’s Bridge Action in Athol where I worked as a consultant [not] during the 80s and 90s. I came once a month, and on the off weeks, the staff met without a supervisor in “pods.” The group later developed a time-map for these meetings, and the name was self-evident. In Ellen’s workshop, participants alternated between the meetings with Ellen and Sharevision meetings on their own. These meetings went so well that everyone was amazed.

As for Sarah’s mention of ideas about body, this has been a perpetual interest of mine. I became fascinated by Gregory Bateson’s research on communication which lacks a way to say “No,” like the speech of schizophrenics, the “language of the creatura,” the realms of humor, art, religion, metaphors, dreams, illness. After vainly trying to find a phrase that would nail the phenomenon in question, I ended up with the “Unlisted Languages.”

You ask about “Empathy.” Well, I tried to make it “Tempathy,” for Travelling Empathy. (see “Family Therapy: An Intimate History.”) I was not satisfied with the within-person idea but wanted to make it more like resonance, which is not “inside” anyone but is picked up variously, as whales pick up the sonar dimensions of their ocean-to-ocean habitat. It is the responses or echoes, not just the individual beeps, that count. What would “Sonar Practices” be like as a category of therapy?

I agree about Seikkula’s use of the love word, but that is a byproduct, and I would like to see what goes into that general effect – what the sonar of it is. Mary Olson did a nice paper with Seikkula on Open Dialogue, which I will ask her about.

Bonnie, nice example of being a telepath - like Sookie Stackhouse on Trueblood. But it is hard work for mere mortals. I use the Big Beach metaphor: the waves may be fierce, but even after a storm the beach will usually still be there, and you may find a new and interesting pebble or shell.

It’s true that models and structures exist for the comfort of the therapist, but if you have too many ropes or monkey bars, they can turn on you. Which bar or rope should I grab first?

And Kevin, I really like your so-called “mistakes.” Now Knowing is important. It cuts off the higher layers that get in the way, like “What if?” Seeing withness as witness is also useful – they go together. And the “contact improv” analogy is maybe more accurate than “conversation” for what we do. I think that text, conversation, written or spoken, is beginning to drop away as a guiding notion – that’s why I use the image of underground rivers, and more recently “cenotes,” the subterranean pools under the surface of the ground in places in Mexico.

As for Seikkula and Co’s break-through study of Open Dialogue, I love their emphasis on creating a common language rather than drawing a diagnosis out of an antique box. Redefining the goal as preventing chronicity, rather than suppressing symptoms is another great idea. Seikkula works with the whole ecology, in the service of creating a “sustaining web.” What is my definition of that? A setting where people can feel “more safe, more free, and more alive.”

I want to mention here a useful counter-practice invented by Chris Kinman who works with in indigenous communities in Vancouver. He came up with the idea of a “Collaborative Action Plan” instead of the “Problem-Oriented Record.” Question One: What gifts and potentials can this young person bring to the community? Question Two: What gifts and potentials can the community bring to the young person? Question Three: What are the Roadblocks that stand in the way of both? Tested on the public health nurses working in the Fraser River Valley, this change made life radically better for the front-line nurses, the university teachers, some of the bureaucrats, and all of the clients.

The ideas above are part of what I call the ˝Gutenberg Century” - the effect of a new technology on everybody’s ways of thinking and doing. If, as I suspect, the Internet is changing our ruling metaphor, which has been the System, we must leave unit-linked ideas like individual or family or ethnic group, and start looking at the connectivity suggested by certain kinds of Webs. The Internet can’t do web-building on its own, (witness the problems with MySpace or Facebook, or the aboutface by Wikipedia) but we should put our minds to this.

Cloud Computing stands for universal access, for better or for worse. Building Webs is the social must-do of the present. So are ideas about rhizomes. If we take seriously Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s warning against “arborescence,” the hierarchical tree-shape that imprints our current institutions, then why not take the Rhizome as a counter-concept? It will help us begin to see the pluses and minuses ahead.

The Ancestors who are part of my Songlines -Harry Goolishian, Tom Andersen, Michael White - were among the pioneers who already were playing with concepts of connectivity like webs and clouds. Then there are horizontal visions like the rhizome metaphor of Deleuze and Guattari, or Tom Friedman’s “The World is Flat.” Another work questioning our fetish for hierarchy is called “The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations,” by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom.

Finally, there is Chris Kinman’s beautiful self-printed essay: “Territories of the Alive: Nature, Community and the Gift.” Website:

To summarize, I am experimenting with new terms like Web-Building, Cloud-work, Sonar Practices, Kinman’s “The Rhizome Way.” “Sharevision” is another concept that fits. A number of philosophers like Mikhail Bakhtin, J.F. Lyotard, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari have been our heralds and soothsayers, and Gregory Bateson was the first to see as basic the evolutionary unit of creature and natural world. Nothing is congealed yet - we are still taking the measurement of the changes that are engulfing us - but we have a chance to fill the new mold while the metal still runs hot.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Lynn, A rambling thought: I think of conversations as I read this piece so full of engaging visual metaphors. Now I am thinking of conversations as "cloud-like"--always shifting into something else just as you think you've grasped it--as the "story" touches and is touched it transitions--you cannot grabe hold of a cloud or a story--neither are static. Harlene