Deciding How to Decide

By Dennis Bohn It took the New York Metropolitan Community of Mindfulness about a year to develop the document on decision making (see below). Some people were suprised that it took so long. but in retrospect. it surprises me that it happened so quickly. I would like to share some of the issues and difficulties we faced. so that other groups grappling with the same issues may know they are not alone.

In the late spring of 1996. Dharma teacher Lyn Fine proposed increasing the structure of our Sangha. both to provide a way for the community to grow and to share the workload with more people. The result was a series of planning meetings to plot a course for the Sangha. After the second meeting. it became apparent that not only was there disagreement over the direction we should take. but that we needed a process for coming to decisions. Opinions differed on whether a decision-making process was necessary or even desirable. Many of us worried that a voting model of decision making would divide the community. and that a consensus model would open the possibility of a "negative tyranny" by a single individual. There was also concern about how people would feel when the group made a decision with which they strongly disagreed.

At each meeting, the bell-keeper, time-keeper. recorder, and "vibes-watcher" worked together to watch the mood and flow of the meeting. When Susan Spieler, a vibes watcher, sensed deep emotions surrounding the decision-making proposal, she suggested that we schedule a meeting to explore people's feelings and past experiences with groups and decisions. This idea was warmly received and the meeting was larger than most. We learned a lot about one another, and ultimately, I believe this experience allowed us to move ahead with the proposal. As the group leaned toward a consensus style of decision making, we received guidance from Sangha member Ruth Lamborn. She taught us the guiding principle in the consensus model: no one person has all of the truth about an issue.

Instead, we each bring our own very individual lenses, grounded in past experience. Through discussion and listening to other people's truths, we can obtain the clearest truth about an issue. This dovetails beautifully with the notion of Interbeing. While the consensus process can be slow and cumbersome, it is also pragmatic. If one person blocks a decision, others in the group can listen again to their concerns, either amending the proposal to satisfy the objections, clearing up some misunderstanding, or persuading the individual to stand aside. Very rarely will an impasse be reached. We also found two texts useful in our process an article titled "Consensus," by Caroline Estes in The New Catalyst, Spring 1986, and Michael J. Sheeran's book, Beyond Majority Rule.

Personally, I found the meetings difficult and I often had unpleasant feelings when someone disagreed with me. When I sat with them, I realized that I felt attacked by disagreement. I try to resolve these feelings by cultivating compassionate listening. When I look at the person speaking, I remember that they are speaking their truth.

This document has truly evolved with our group. The  process guides us back to Buddhist principles, which have been a bell of mindfulness amidst the hurly-burly of our passionate opinions. The openness of our meetings, in which each person has a voice, is balanced by the depth of commitment that someone must demonstrate to block a decision. This proposal also allows people to disagree and then spaciously stand aside, letting the group move ahead. I am grateful that we now have this document as a loving start in the decision-making process, helpill:g us to organize and plot our course without becoming fragmented.

Peace, and good luck if your group is traveling on a similar path.

Dennis Bohn is a member of the New York Metropolitan Community of Mindfulness. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife Amy and their dog Lucy.


Proposal for Consensus Process

In our proposals for process and structure in the Community of Mindfulness/NY Metropolitan Area, we consistently return to the spirit of the teachings [of Thich Nhat Hanh].

Part of the process of decision making involves letting go of attachment and preferences.

The process of how we respond when we feel that a decision didn’t go “our way” and our relationship to the mental formations arising from such situations is precisely one of the points of our Sangha practice together.

The spirit of Beginning Anew be built into the planning meeting process as “part of the culture,” for example, at the end of each planning meeting we give time for “flower watering.”

A short quote from Thich Nhat Hanh or “Evoking the Boddhisattvas’ Names” may be read at the beginning of each planning meeting to set the tone.

Proposed:

  1. That for a trial period of six months, decisions of the Planning Committee be made by a consensus of those present at the Planning Committee meeting, with the exception of the Dharmacharya, who is to be considered if she is not present. Prior to the end of six months, a planning meeting will be called specifically to review and revise this proposal.
  2. That, given a range of disagreement is possible in the consensus model: a) an individual or individuals may express disagreement with a proposal and then stand aside so that the rest of the group may move ahead; b) an individual or individuals may wish to be noted in the minutes as disagreeing with the proposal and then stand aside so that the rest of the group may move ahead with the proposal; c) block: an individual or individuals may take a principled position opposed to a decisions and refuse to stand aside. In this case, the group may not proceed with the matter until consensus is reached. Discussion of the issue may and probably will continue.
  3. That any individual who wishes to attend a Planning Committee meeting is welcome to attend and participate. However, in order that decisions will be blocked only by people with a significant commitment to the community and by people who are well informed about issues under discussion, there shall be two prerequisites for a person to block a decision. The person who wishes to stand in the way of a decision must have practiced for at least one year with one of the Sanghas affiliated with the larger CMNY/Metro Sangha, and have been present at a minimum of the past four planning meetings.

The intention of this provision is that community decisions not be blocked by a person(s) who does not have significant “investment” in the community or by a person(s) who is not informed about the issues under discussion through their personal presence at recent meetings. In both these instances, the person(s) who does not meet the prerequisites and wishes to take a principled stand against a decision may seek, through compassionate dialogue, to persuade others to his/her point of view. If an individual or individuals who feel strongly about a proposal must be absent from a scheduled Planning Meeting, it is understood that they take responsibility for ensuring presentation of their point of view at the meeting or for finding another way to have decision making tabled on the proposal on which they feel strongly until they can be present.

PDF of this article