There is an old saying in Zen: Everything the same; everything different. This is a truth that is so obvious that it goes without saying. We live in a universe that is one unified whole. The myriad things come from the same unknown source, are made of the same basic materials, existing within the same dimensions of time and space, and operating under the same set of physical laws and principles. Nothing is left out of the universe, and yet, out of this fundamental sameness pop infinite, extravagant differences.
Difference abounds. Quarks are different from atoms, molecules are different from cells. Single-celled life forms are different from plants, plants from animals, animals from human beings.
I am different from you, we are different from them, they are different from those other guys. (And usually, it is those other ones that are the problem). Life builds up in complexity, and it is said that the most healthy ecosystems are those containing the most diversity.
The paradox of sameness and difference in the context of human interaction is again so obvious that we might not care to note it. Of course, we are the same. Obviously, we are different. We like the sameness, until it becomes dull and heavy, and conformity burdens our conversations and dogma confines our mind and restricts our ability to grow and change.
We like the stimulation of difference. That is, until it escalates into stressful interactions, intensifies into ongoing conflict, or breaks out into war. We know that there is nothing more destructive on our planet than human differences fueled by ideology, rage and weapons. (Of course, some world-views have little tolerance for difference at all, and disagreement will get you killed in those circles.)
Culture provides a boundary of sameness around us.We gravitate towards people who look like us, talk like we do, dress the same, and share in our values, because it feels good. We love to share in the same projects and art forms, and relish the experience of harmony in our social circles. It feels good to be mirrored by people like us, and we use agreement like a soothing agent in our conversations; nodding our head while listening softens our interactions as we consistently affirm one another and our respective views.
Even in the warmth of our circle of sameness, however, differences arise. It is as though the universe’s capacity for differentiation is always at work, and attempting to keep differences down takes effort.
I remember this experience distinctly when I was about twelve, and my best girlfriend—the one with whom I had spent every spare moment since I was about eight—and I started to disagree. Before that, we had worn the same kind of shoes, donned the same haircut, and worn the same kind of skirts and navy blue windbreakers.
Suddenly, our love of sameness began to change and we started to quarrel about what we liked and didn’t like. An unexpected rift grew between us, and I didn’t have the understanding that this eruption of difference was actually healthy, and represented our growth from a developmental perspective. All I knew is that our stream of togetherness had become rocky. Unable to clear the differences away, we drifted apart.
Difference doesn’t have to result in ongoing quarrels, nor does it have to lead to separation, but a facilitator must learn how to work with differences in a way that is useful to the group.
Facilitators often make the error of depriving differences from doing their job of enlivening and disrupting. They generate energy, and that energy can be used to fuel new initiatives. Differences can point to potential problems down the road, and demand groups to anticipate them. Differences may be disruptive, but they are also useful.
A facilitator can develop a taste for working with the disruptive energy so that like a good chef, it is included in just the right amount to keep groups enlivened, awake, and creative.
Facilitators can learn to recognize the energetic textures of sameness and difference, and work with them in the way an acupuncturist works with energy in the body. If the energy is agitated in our meetings, we can bring more sameness into the room to soothe and cohere. Practices like listening, appreciative inquiry, and creating shared vision and goals or value lists support groups in their togetherness, promoting harmony and a sense of belonging, and keeping everyone moving in the same direction. When groups are sluggish, flat or lacking inspiration, differences may be brought out, heightened, and explored.
The capacity for a group to allow for difference, to be willing to explore it, and to include diversity of opinions and styles within its boundaries is a sign of health for a human community much like it is in any ecosystem. As we become more skilled at stimulating experiences of sameness and of difference, our ability to respond freely and creatively in service of the groups and gatherings we are facilitating increases.
Diane Musho Hamilton
Co-Founder and Lead Teacher, Integral Facilitator®
Author, Everything is Workable, a Zen Approach to Conflict Resolution.
2015 Diane Musho Hamilton© used with permission