Over Easter we spent a few days on vacation, and during
this time we came across these two – our friendly companions and
patron saints for this conference:
Many of you may recognize them: one is the archangel Gabriel as he
announces the birth of Jesus, and on the right is Mary as she receives
this news from Gabriel. They were created in around the year 1280, and
they can be found in St. Peter’s Cathedral in Regensburg. The
religious or art history background isn’t important for me here
– it could just as well be Jewish or Buddhist forms, or simply
other human faces. What matters is what the two “angels”
– I’ll call them this for simplicity’s sake –
are expressing: friendliness; merriment; and a natural lightness and
What do these qualities of our two angels have to do with collective
wisdom? Well, collective wisdom deals with matters which are really
close to our hearts. Just as it’s said in the World Café,
which we’ll soon put into practice together: We can’t afford
to waste our time and our lives with matters which don’t fulfill
our spirit, and which don’t really touch our hearts.
And we know this: What really touches our hearts also lets us smile,
and it often has the quality of lightness; it naturally incorporates
our interest in issues close to the hearts of others, our fellow human
beings; and our own heartfelt concerns bring us into contact with our
natural and compassionate generosity and inclusiveness, especially even
towards those who at first appeared to us to be unfamiliar, alien, or
What is Collective Wisdom?
So, what is collective wisdom - the subject of our conference? I would
like to name just a few traits.
1. With collective wisdom it’s about something apparently
Summed up, collective wisdom can be described this way: “Together
we know more.” If an issue important to all of us exercises the
effect of an “attractor” and gathers the group around it,
a third thing, something new, can take shape in our midst which is more
than the sum of all the individuals, and which creates a special connection
AND: While the individual steps back a bit and becomes
part of the larger commonality, he or she simultaneously lights up in
his or her own individual uniqueness, irreplaceability, and specialness.
The conscious experience of collective wisdom and the conscious experience
then of unmistakably becoming ourselves, are one process and one movement.
From this consciousness, this “together-knowing” –
coming from the Latin roots “con” = together, and “scire”
= to know, giving us the Latin conscientia and the English derivative
conscience – out of this “consciousness from together-knowing,”
new solutions actually become possible in all spheres of life, from
the family domain to politics - solutions which at first seemed inconceivable
to us. (By the way: We may also be trying to develop collective wisdom
even when we’re alone, when we talk to ourselves - we’re
attempting to speak with another self in order to know more together!)
Example: A number of years ago a mountain climbing
guide told me about a survival training trip he had made with a group
of 20 in Canada. A woman in the group suddenly began running a high
fever and had tremendous pain in her lower abdomen. There was no doctor
in the group, and the next telephone station was at least 12 hours away
by foot. Under these circumstances, the guide asked each person in the
group to write down the following two things on a slip of paper: first,
the probable diagnosis and the seriousness of the situation; and secondly,
what should be done. The paper slips were then read out loud, and each
point was voted on by the group until the result became clear. Probable
diagnosis: acute appendicitis with immediate threat to life. What had
to be done was: setting a fire in the forest near a clearing, and laying
out an “S.O.S” sign with the participants’ colored
jackets – both measures to attract the attention of pilots in
planes flying overhead so that they could then pass on the call for
help. The woman was on the operating table within six hours and her
life was just able to be saved. The mountain guide’s comment:
I never would have come up with these ideas alone!
2. Collective wisdom doesn’t recognize any particular
there are only experts. Collective wisdom can more easily arise where
we lower or eliminate the often so restrictive barriers based on hierarchy,
or those based on ethnic or religious affiliation.
Of course we’re very happy here to have our many presenter experts,
and we’re curious about their knowledge, their experience, and
their inspiration. But at the level of collective wisdom there are no
status or knowledge differences: We’re all equal – and that
is a beautiful challenge for all of us! If we tend to see ourselves
as “smaller” and others as “bigger,” then we
can start to play here by giving up these postures. If we’re in
positions of leadership, or tend to direct and guide others, then we
can use this ability here to encourage others to equality, and to challenge
them to become aware of their own potential for collective wisdom.
Maybe there really are experts in collective wisdom:
these are people who have especially great confidence in collective
wisdom, and in the possibilities of fostering it. Here is an example
of one such expert who awakened collective wisdom in a small enterprise
with an affectionate comment, and in doing so saved it from dying out.
This incident relates to elements which are central to the unfolding
of collective wisdom: recognition and valuing of differences; and with
this: consideration and respect as a basic posture towards others; and:
esteem and recognition as well for one’s own dignity.
Many of you may already know this story:
It’s about a once thriving monastery, which at the beginning
of the Twentieth Century, after a long period of decline, was so diminished
that only five monks were left in the crumbling main residence. This
group included the abbot and four monks, all over 70 years old. Very
clearly a dying monastic order.
The abbot, tormented by the imminent demise of his order, one
day came up with the idea of going to visit the nearby hermitage of
an old rabbi and asking him whether he might have some advice on how
the monastery could be saved. As the abbot was explaining the purpose
of his visit, the rabbi could only express his sympathy.
“I know how it is!” he cried out. “The spirit
has left the people. It’s the same in my congregation. Almost
no one comes to the synagogue any more.” And so the old abbot
and the old rabbi cried on each other’s shoulders. Then they
read passages out of the Torah and discoursed quietly together on
profound matters. The time came for the abbot to take his leave. They
embraced each other. “It was wonderful after such a long time
that we’ve come together again,” said the abbot, “but
still, I haven’t achieved the aim of my visit. Is there nothing
that you could say to me, no advice that you can give me, which could
help me save my dying order?” “No, I’m sorry,”
answered the rabbi. “I have no advice to give. The only thing
that I can say is that the Messiah is one of you.”
When the abbot returned to the monastery the brothers circled
all around him, clamoring: “Well, tell us, what did the rabbi
have to say?”
“He couldn’t help me,” answered the abbot.
“We just cried and read the Torah together. The only thing that
he did say, though, just as I was about to leave – it was rather
mysterious – was that the Messiah is one of us. I don’t
know what he meant by that.”
In the following days and weeks and months, the old monks brooded
over this, and asked themselves whether the words of the rabbi could
possibly have some kind of significance.
The Messiah is one of us? Could he have possibly meant one of
us monks here in the monastery? If so, then which one of us could
it be? Do you believe he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant one of
us, then presumably the abbot. He’s been our spiritual leader
for more than a generation.
On the other hand, he could also have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly
Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man
Certainly he couldn’t have meant Brother Elred! Elred with
his bad moods. But looked at more closely, even if he’s a thorn
in the side for people, Elred is practically always right. Often quite
right. Maybe the rabbi actually did mean Brother Elred!
But surely not Brother Philipp. Philipp is so passive, a real
nobody. But, on the other hand, almost in magical fashion, he has
the gift of always being there when you need him. He simply appears
at your side, as if by a miracle. Maybe Philipp is the Messiah!
Of course, the rabbi didn’t mean me. In no way could he
have meant me! I’m just a very ordinary person. But, assuming
he meant me - assuming I’m the Messiah? Oh God, not me! I really
couldn’t be so much for You, or could I? -
As they began reflecting in this manner, the old monks began
to treat each another with extraordinary respect for the improbable
case that one of them really was the Messiah.
And for the most improbable case of all, that each one of the
monks himself could be the Messiah, they also began to treat themselves
with this same extraordinary respect.
The rare visitors to the monastery, it was reported, began to
sense the aura emanating from this exceptional respect which had begun
to surround the five old monks, and which seemed to have penetrated
the entire atmosphere of their home. The place began to have something
oddly magnetic about it. Indeed, it took on an almost irresistible
And so it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that eventually
novices began to ask for admittance, and that thanks to the rabbi’s
gift the monastery awoke over the course of just a few years to a
new and vibrant life. —
Thus ends this story about the experts, that we all are.
So please, look at yourselves during the time of our conference –
and also, of course, in the time afterwards! – in this sense as
experts who are bringing along your own special potential for common
In daily politics you can often observe how hard it is to break up
the “expert monopoly” and put it into many hands. Around
the middle of April 2006, our Federal Minister for Families in Germany
started a so-called “Alliance for Education” with the Catholic
and Protestant churches in the country. Its purported goal is to support
parents in imparting explicitly “Christian values” while
raising their children. Immediate reactions to this ranged from irritation
to outrage within the Jewish and Muslim communities, as well as among
other groups, such as teacher associations and the union representing
those involved with education and science. They felt that they were
being excluded from this important issue about values, and hence demeaned.
Is there such a thing as “Christian values,” or is there
something about asserting them, which, in somewhat exaggerated terms,
is already like a subtle “declaration of war” against “the
others,” for example, against the other religious denominations?
(We forget so easily: No religion can claim for itself more truth or
nearness to God than any other. Were there numerous, powerful, and impossible
to ignore Christian voices being raised against the Nazi regime; or
12 years ago against the genocide in predominantly Christian Rwanda?)
What could an alternative process on the part of the Family Ministry
look like which would make use of the greater capability of a collective
search for solutions for this important question of values? For example,
a World Café with participants representing all key population
groups, including children and youths. Together they could, for example,
address the question of: “According to which values do I want
to be treated? And how can I contribute to having everyone else treated
in just this same way?”
At this point, I would like to make a small digression on collective
stupidity, blindness, oppression, and destructiveness. In light
of the collective acts of cruelty continuing up the present day, particularly
those of the very recent past, the word “collective” has
a sinister and frightening overtone for many of us.
So, let me take a moment to ask: What could turn us, the ca. 700 participants
of this conference, into a more or less homogeneous, blind, and destructive
mass? How much time would be needed for this – how many decades,
or maybe only weeks, days, or even hours? And which external and internal
circumstances could lead to this?
Many factors for such a development are of course known: economic distress
and poverty; collective humiliation, for example after a lost war; an
external threat like imminent or already occurring warfare; and the
accompanying collective need for strong charismatic and quasi-religious
leadership - and much more.
I would like to mention here a very ordinary factor which contains
the seed of collective blindness and war: “Over there” we
see “the others,” who in our eyes embody, or are doing something
upsetting, bad, or harmful.
Here in our circles “those over there” might be, for example,
religious fundamentalists, right-wing radicals and Neo-Nazis, terrorists,
globalizers, and sometimes also “the American government,”
etc., etc. From rejection to demeaning and condemning, all the way to
the wish and supposedly justifiable actions to make them disappear,
there are but a few steps to which each and every one of us is capable.
This hasn’t just been proven again and again by the collective
crimes of the last century, but also by the terrifyingly simple experiments
of Milgram, and later of Zimbardo in the 1970s. During these experiments
people like us became willing within hours or just a few days to commit
severe acts of cruelty on test persons. Zimbardo’s results were
recently directly confirmed in reports about the rapid onset of brutality
among prison personnel throughout the entire world, and not just in
What I’m leading to is this: We here are certainly not particularly
special people, and most definitely not a collection of saints. We all
tend to judge and condemn, sometimes overtly, often only subtly. And
with each of these judgments we nourish the seeds of exclusion and collective
blindness. Judging and condemning often relate at first only to ourselves,
but subsequently go on to affect many others.
I would therefore like to propose that over these three days that we
conduct a little mindfulness exercise: that every once in a while we
pause to simply just observe how we’re seeing ourselves, and others.
And if we recognize that we’re tending to make a judgment against
ourselves or against others, that we then take a couple of good deep
breaths, develop a feeling of friendliness and sympathy for ourselves
and the others, put the judgments aside for the moment, and then perhaps
sense the relief which comes from this. This is a wonderful little exercise,
and in sum just as much a wonderful little contribution to dealing cleverly
with the warlike potential in ourselves, and hence to collective wisdom
in the best sense.
3. An element of collective wisdom which isn’t always
explicitly named is, of course, non-violence.
On one side, non-violence corresponds to our original nature,
our original goodness, as the Buddhists say. It doesn’t take much,
though, as was pointed out, to give up and lose the connection to this
Talking most competently on this subject will be Marshall Rosenberg
– tonight after the evening break – whose life’s work
is dedicated to non-violent communication. I don’t want to fail,
however, to tell one of the many stories which remind us of the surprising
options that we so often have in life. This story has been recounted
by Tom Atlee (in “The Tao of Democracy”), whose task throughout
his life has been the promotion of what he calls “cointelligence.”
This story is about an actual occurrence concerning a sheep farmer
in Indiana, who was being threatened by his new neighbor’s dogs.
They had been running around free and were attacking and killing his
sheep. The usual reaction by sheep farmers to such incidents, of course,
consists of court action, barbed wire fences, or ultimately the use
This man had a better idea: he presented baby lambs to his neighbor’s
children as pets. Subsequently, the neighbor started voluntarily tying
up his dogs, and after a while friendly contact began to develop between
the two families.
Now I would again like to come back to our next step together, the
World Café. Peter Senge, who is perhaps known to some of you
as an especially astute and far-sighted organization developer, and
a very good authority on the World Café, says this about it:
“The World Café is not a technique. It is an invitation
into a way of being with one another that is already part of our nature.”
And Senge goes on to say: “The underlying purpose of the World
Café is to let loose the true desire of the larger whole.”
Maybe at first this sounds too “big” or too abstract,
but what is meant is this: The World Café is about carrying on
conversations under friendly and pleasant conditions about things that
matter to us, and which touch us.
So, what is it in the end that really touches us, what is this? I believe
it’s this: that we can find out what it is that we value and love
in ourselves. That we can face our own limitations and faults with sympathy.
And that with both our best aspects and our limitations, we can contribute
to the well-being of others, indeed to the common good. As Desmond Tutu
says: “Contributing to the common good is in one’s own best
Our nature is both: personal and transpersonal, meaning that we’re
also part of a larger whole, and we would like to live this out, give
it expression, serve it, and enjoy it. We would like to have the happiness
inducing experience of serving the common good – this is not a
moral imperative, but is rather an intensive urge to achieve personal
satisfaction. It is not the urge for self-confirmation or to go down
in history as a “good person,” but rather the desire to
give expression to our original social / communal nature. That which
touches our personal uniqueness and our possibilities to serve the common
good, these are good issues.
Can / should we create a better world? I don’t know. To me, this
question seems more to confine the space, rather than widen it. But
if we follow what really touches and nourishes our hearts, with the
light ease and the smile which are natural to the heart, then we allow
for movement and the emergence of what our two patron saints are heralding
– something new that we don’t yet know, but which we can
still entrust ourselves to. What really counts to us, and moves us,
therefore really has nothing to do at all with commandments and morals.
I can recall an example – and each of us here has experienced
such examples – of a tire installer in the USA who, after we’d
been waiting for hours on a lonely highway, eventually appeared out
of the night with his tiny service vehicle in order to fix the flat
tire on our RV: extremely focused and so alert, as though he had just
discovered a surprisingly new variation in the work which he had already
done a thousand times before; and above all: he worked with complete
enjoyment, and laughed the whole time.
So, it’s not about heroic altruism or something similar; no,
it’s about simple gestures of interest, of concern, sympathy and
patience there where we are at the moment – whether that place
is one of the current crisis areas of the world or where we are now,
in a region where peace currently prevails. It’s about these kinds
of simple and central questions, which we pose at the beginning in the
The conference begins and ends with all its currents in the Community
Council on the last day. In the Community Council, following old Native
American tribal traditions, the entirety of our conference community
is reflected in eight basic positions and perspectives on life, corresponding
to the eight points on the compass. In the words of Ingrid Ebeling (who
will conduct the World Café and the Community Council together
with Andrea Steckert): “From these different perspectives ….
we want to look at the conference we’ve gone through together.
It’s now about making the multifaceted things we’ve encountered,
the results, the personal and collective experiences of the conference,
visible for the community in our own specific way, and to carry this
out into the world.”
Under the experienced direction of Ingrid Ebeling with the support
of Andrea Steckert, we can now begin with the World Café.
Thank you very much, Ingrid and Andrea - I’m now
turning it over to you.
- END -