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There is only one way out of chaos and it is usually time to explain this to a group after they have spent a sufficient period of time squabbling and getting nowhere. Of course, one way is into organisation, but that is not community. No, the only way is into and through emptiness.

Often the group will ignore this suggestion and go on squabbling. Groups are not generally eager to pick up on the suggestion of emptiness. The fact that "emptiness" is a mystical sort of word or concept is not the deterrent. People are smart and often, in the dimmer recesses of their consciousness, know more than they want to know. It is because as soon as emptiness is mentioned people have an idea of what is to come. They are in no hurry to accept it.

Emptiness is the hard part. It is an exercise of discipline and requires work. It is always the most difficult part of the process that a group must undergo if it is to become a community. Like any discipline, it can become easier if we make it a habit, but even if habitual it can still be painful because emptiness always requires a negation of the self and the need to know. It is also the most crucial stage of community development. It is a sacrificial stage and the bridge between chaos and community. Yet precisely because it is emptiness, the stage often feels more like jumping into a void than stepping onto a bridge. Most of us have great difficulty in tolerating the emptiness of not knowing. After all, knowledge of the past, the present and even the future and, above all, self-knowledge are touted as the ultimate goals of human experience. Emptiness is not an end in itself but a means to an end. It is said that nature abhors a vacuum so that at the moment we become empty something comes into our emptiness. Whatever comes into our emptiness is beyond our control. It is the unforeseen, the unexpected and the new and it is only from these that we learn.

The rules of community building are the rules for effective communication. There are basic equations between community, communication, peace and also the concepts of integration and integrity. Emptiness is simply the emptying of oneself of the barriers to communication. The process of emptying ourselves of these barriers is the transition from "rugged" to "soft" individualism.

Does communication lead to greater or lesser understanding among human beings? If communication improves the quality of the relationship between two or more people, then from an overall standpoint it is effective. However, if it creates confusion, misunderstanding, distortions, suspicion or antipathy then in is ineffective. The overall purpose of communication should be reconciliation. It should serve to lower or remove the walls and barriers that unduly separate us from one another.

Confrontational, even angry communication is sometimes necessary to bring into focus the clear reality of those barriers before they can be knocked down. In the chaos stage of community building, for example, individual differences must first be allowed to surface and be fought over so that the group can ultimately learn to accept, celebrate and thereby transcend them. But, the principle of effective communication needs to be borne in mind. If it is not, then communication becomes task-avoiding. When people are confronting each other over their differences and lose sight of the need for reconciliation, they begin to act as if there purpose in being "together" is merely to fight with each other.

There will be plenty of examples from the period of chaos to use in making a group aware of what they are - specific feelings, assumptions, ideas and motives that have filled members’ minds and made them impervious.

Barriers to Communication

The most common and interrelated barriers to communication that people need to empty themselves of before they can enter genuine community are:

  • Expectations and preconceptions

People are normally terrified of the emptiness of the unknown. We seldom go into any situation without preconceptions. We then try to make the experience conform to our expectations. Until such time as we can empty ourselves of our expectations and stop trying to fit others and our relationships with them into a preconceived mould, we cannot really listen, hear or experience. Even knowing this, we do not go easily into new situations with an open (and empty) mind.

  • Prejudices

These are more unconscious than conscious. They are judgements that we make about people without any experience of them, or more commonly judgements we make about people on the basis of very brief, limited experience. One reason to distrust instant community is that community building requires time to have sufficient experience to become conscious of our prejudices and then to empty ourselves of them.

  • Ideology, theology and solutions

It is not just ideology and theology that we need to discard, but any idea that assumes the status of the "right and only way". This is not to imply that we should utterly give up our sometimes hard won sentiments and understandings. It is to say that we should be willing to express them with humility and even humour.

  • The need to heal, convert, fix or solve

During the stage of chaos, when the members of the group attempt to heal or convert each other, they believe they are being loving. They are truly surprised by the chaotic results. After all, isn’t it the loving thing to do to relieve your neighbour of his or her suffering and help them to see the light? However, most of these attempts to heal and convert are not only naive and ineffective, but quite self-centred and self-serving. It hurts me when my friend is in pain. If I can do something to get rid of his pain, I will feel better. My most basic motive when I strive to heal is to feel good myself, but there are several problems here. One is that my cure is not usually my friend’s. Indeed, offering someone my cure often only makes that person feel worse. The fact is that often the most we can do for a person in pain is simply to share the pain - to be there even though we have nothing to offer except our presence, even when being there is painful to ourselves. The same is true with the attempt to convert. If your ideology or theology is different from mine, it calls mine into question. It is uncomfortable for me to be uncertain of my own understanding in such basic matters. On the other hand, if I could convert you to my way of thinking, it would not only relieve my discomfort, it would be further proof of the rectitude of my beliefs and additionally cast me in the role of saviour. How much easier and nice that would be than extending myself to understand you as you are.

As they enter the stage of emptiness the members of the group come to realise, sometimes suddenly, sometimes gradually, that their desire to heal, convert or otherwise "solve" their interpersonal differences is a self-centred desire for comfort through the obliteration of these differences. It then begins to occur to them that there may be another way: the appreciation and celebration of individual differences.

  • The need to control

Each member is no more and no less responsible for the success of the group in achieving the desired outcome - community. It must be a creation of the group as a whole. However, some people will have a need to control, to ensure the desired outcome, which in part will be rooted in the fear of failure. To empty oneself of all over controlling tendencies, we must empty ourselves of this fear. We must be willing to fail in order that we might succeed. It is about learning an increased capacity for surrender and there are many things that need to be given up to become a community. The list cannot be exhausted here. Such giving up is a sacrificial process. Consequently the stage of emptiness in community building is a time of sacrifice and sacrifice hurts. It is a kind of death, the kind of death that is necessary for rebirth.

But even when we realise this intellectually, such dying is still a fearsome adventure into the unknown. Many group members during the stage of emptiness often seem almost paralysed between fear and hope because they will think and feel about emptiness in terms of nothingness or annihilation rather than in terms of rebirth.

Moving into Emptiness

As a group moves into emptiness, a few members begin to share their own brokenness - their defeats, failures, doubts, fears, inadequacies and sins. They begin to stop acting as if they "had it all together" as they reflect on those things they need to be empty of. But the other members do not listen to them very attentively. Either they revert to attempts to heal or convert or they ignore them by quickly changing the topic. Consequently, those who have made themselves vulnerable retreat quickly into their shells. It is not easy to confess your weakness when others are apt to try immediately to change you or else behave as if you haven’t said anything worth listening to. Sometimes the group will soon come to recognise that it is blocking expressions of pain and suffering, that to truly listen they have to truly empty themselves, even of their distaste for "bad news". If they don’t, it has to be pointed out to them that they are discouraging the sharing of brokenness. Some groups will then immediately correct their callousness, but other groups will wage a last-ditch struggle against community. Basically, this final resistance is an attempt to flee back into pseudocommunity. Here the issue at stake is no longer over whether individual differences will be denied. The group will have moved to far for that. Instead, the struggle is over wholeness. It is over whether the group will choose to embrace not only the light of life, but also life’s darkness. True community is joyful, but it is also realistic. Sorrow and joy have to be seen in their proper proportions.


It is no accident that silence is routinely used in community building as a means of leading a group into emptiness. Silence provides opportunity for contemplation. Contemplation is a process in which we think about, mull over and reflect and unexpected things can happen to us in our moments of contemplation and emptiness. We are required to stop thinking before we are truly able to think with any originality. Contemplation includes meditation and prayer as well as reflection on the unexpected occurrences that happen in our lives and in our relationship to life. They should not be rigidly or arbitrarily separated; in reality they blend into each other. A life of contemplation is a life dedicated to maximum awareness. If you continually ask questions of life and are continually willing to be open and empty enough to hear life’s answer and ponder the meaning you will be contemplative. True communities are invariably contemplative. They are self-aware. It is one of the characteristics of community. A collection of individuals cannot become a community unless, as individuals, they are willing to become empty and contemplative. They cannot maintain themselves as a community unless the continually contemplate themselves as an organism. To survive, a community must repetitively stop whatever it is doing to ask how it is doing, to think about where it, the community, needs to go and to empty to hear the answers.