Rules of Engagement

by Antonio Dias

When we are “consuming” a cultural artifact and it creates discomfort, even emotional pain, we tend to value the experience. We feel the artist has done something worthwhile. We feel we have participated in something that adds richness to our lives. Yet when we are confronted with a social interaction, a mediated interaction at that, a conference, or a meeting, not a direct encounter within our everyday life; we are angered and feel disappointment and dissatisfaction if this event disturbs us.

We tend, I think, to lump such encounters in with personal experiences of painful interactions within relationships. It strikes us the same way as an abusive interaction with a spouse or family member would. We are so far into our unmediated responses – in the sense that we forget we are witnessing, or taking part, in a performance, an action with meta-levels built into it, and that we take part in it voluntarily, as opposed to our situation within our direct experiences interacting within our everyday lives, where we live, where we may not feel we have an opportunity to distance ourselves from the effects of our encounters.

Now, it could be argued that the same standards should apply across the board to all of our interactions. These standards might range from “everything must be nice!” through some sort of rough and tumble code and on towards some form of mindfulness that would ask us to suspend our reactions so as to allow room for compassion to work. For now, let’s just see if there might not be a closer affinity between performance and public interactions and that something could be gained by looking into this distinction from everyday personal life.

No matter what form of interaction we enter into we need to get our bearings in relation to the matrix of our emotional response. Each type of experience brings with it a certain expectation that colors how we view our emotional response. For instance when we approach a work of art, a novel or a movie with difficult themes and painful situations in it, we still come to it with an expectation of pleasure and reward at having entered into this confrontation. Behind our suspension of disbelief, and our immersion in the maelstrom of emotions it may generate in us, there is this sense of being within a safe zone. We can leave it at any time, we know it is not actually happening to us and we know – if not true proprioception, that we are the source of our emotional pain – at least we can place it within the covers of the book or the walls of the cinema.

This experience allows for catharsis. It is in this safe-zone where we can grapple with what appears to be too fraught in “real-life.”

A meeting or a presentation exists somewhere between this type of experience and those of everyday life. In our everyday life there is no easy boundary. We can feel trapped and we can feel powerless under the onslaught of the manipulations of others. This steepens the incline and makes it extremely difficult at times at least to recognize the difference between what is done to us and what we do to ourselves. We lose sight of, or never even notice, our proprioception regarding our painful emotional responses and this makes our position even more vulnerable.

Within a meeting or presentation, we are inside a situation in which we may carve out a space from our everyday life to enter into a place where we may grapple with issues together that appear too difficult or too great to confront alone in everyday life. Or, we find something is missing from our individual confrontations with Art and we want to confront these things outside our own limiting subjectivity. How do we see these situations? What are our expectations? How do they color, or perhaps even cripple, our ability to gain value from these experiences?

The boundaries are not as clear here as they are in Art. If anything, the qualities of the situation that make it other than everyday life for us may actually heighten our emotional responses taking them beyond what we have been able to cope with, or maybe just repress, in our everyday life. There are Persona right there in front of us that, as in a performance, seem to draw on and heighten our habits of projection so that we see them as saviors or as villains. The energy of a group whose individual’s everyday reticence has been overcome by proximity and this air of expectancy – all of the bottled-up frustration that is normally deadened may be pouring out of everyone and creating a heightened atmosphere of expectation. All of this creates an amalgam of the mediated experience of Art and our unmediated direct immersion in everyday life. It’s not surprising that we find this difficult. It’s not surprising that this opens up the potential for another kind of abuse as those who are adept at this form, those for whom this isn’t a special case, but part of their everyday – whether “on stage” or in the pit – learn to take advantage and manipulate the situation for their own ends.

What I would like to add to this look into the dynamics of meetings and presentations is that if we look at these emotional dynamics, not as “consumers” of a product who are in effect connoisseurs of a form, but as people who have put themselves into a fraught, but potentially rich experience, from which they may gain much. As in any other type of experience, what we take from it is not limited to anyone’s prior intentions or expectations. As with an experience of Art, it is an opportunity to practice proprioception when confronted with emotional discomfort and pain in a situation that is, while it may appear more directly confrontational than Art, is still a voluntary and passing attachment. What if we were to allow ourselves to recognize this, that this is a “safe-space” outside of our everyday lives with their much greater difficulties for gaining perspective? As with any confrontation with difficult Art, we may be thrown for a loop, we may feel completely outside of our comfort zones, yet when it is over, we can walk away, and we can reflect on what has happened, and that reflection can lead to insights of great value that may have nothing to do with how the meeting was held, or how the presentation was made.

Within the space from which we may learn and gain insights from our involvement it is not only the way others behave that is instrumental. Our own composure, or lack there-of, our outbursts, our frozen paralysis, our failures to come up to the challenge; are as valuable to us as the “successes” or “failures” of those who staged the event. No one might have been able to either recognize or communicate how the many projections crackling through this energized space might have been overpowering. No one might have been able to “redeem” themselves with a moment of candor or humility at the time. I would say that none of this is a sign the event was a failure. There are many ways events can truly fail, but getting “out-of-control” is not one of them – barring situations that break the bond of responsibility for each others physical and fundamental emotional safety. Altamont was a failure in this way. Woodstock was not. How’s that for showing my age!

Even these provisos of physical and emotional safety are not totally straightforward. As with anything else that matters, there is no simple set of rules that will keep us on the right side of this divide. The circumstances, and the individuals, matter. This is, if anything another reason not to accept our roles at an event as simply a consumer, but to feel a responsibility as an active participant in any space we enter.

We can feel we are held by a nightmarish sense of unavoidable conflict and irresolvable difficulty in our everyday lives. We may feel trapped in a Fate in which no matter how much we would like to see things change we find ourselves falling into the same series of steps that always lead to the same damaging results. Every incidence of abuse, whether from the point of view of its perpetrator or victim, runs along a steel track, deep within a rut from within which we can only imagine a single, possible outcome. Within our everyday life, caught within its all-encompassing matrix of factors we build these patterns of behavior, we feel totally overwhelmed by them, and unable to imagine any other way at all.

We tend to have similar experiences in our relationship to meetings and presentations. We may feel compelled to enter into them. We may then feel horror at the way they always run the same course. We are hurt and bewildered by this and we feel trapped and Fated to repeat it. Or, as I tend to do, we may be averse to entering these situations at all! We may feel overwhelmed by the expectation that a bad result is inevitable and unavoidable. It may take an unusual set of circumstances to push us beyond this reluctance. A reluctance that can easily be reinforced if we then fail to understand the parameters of our perception of their “failure.”

What I would suggest is that if we can gain slivers of insight into the way these events are not fraught in exactly the same way, or to the same level, as our everyday lives. That they do offer us the chance to practice something else. There is room here to make mistakes, to be vulnerable, to get caught-up in specifics and swept up within our emotional response, but then, either during or afterwards, to step-back and suspend those reactions, or as Bohm sometimes put it, to at least suspend our frustration at our inability to suspend our reactions! These are valuable opportunities to experience proprioception for what it is, and also opportunities to feel the power of compassion and empathy. This takes us from a theoretical stance regarding our way of looking at what happens within a perspective of the wholeness of Being and gives us chances to actually inhabit this awareness, even if only as fleeting glimmers of the possibility of something other than conflict or avoidance.

We may have made utter asses of ourselves at a meeting. We may have been thrown into a nearly catatonic state of paralysis with all of our potent comebacks only coming to us long after the moment had passed. The other participants may have been equally flawed, or worse! Upon reflection these can be tremendous opportunities for growth. These may be uniquely valuable opportunities for growth!

If we maintain our focus of attention on the rules of engagement, outlining parameters for a successful encounter and policing them, we not only miss these opportunities but we maintain a credence in the feasibility and the advisability to manage our interactions. We remain consumers of experiences instead of actors within a broad spectrum of possible interactions, ranging from those of outright Artistic performance, through this arena of public action, and on through to finding ways to engage with our everyday lives from somewhere other than feeling caught in traps of stereotypical conditioning. Each of these types of interaction offer their own challenges and rewards. Central to gaining access to these is for us to modify how we treat expectations and intentions, ours as well as those of the others we come into contact with. Art, public life, and everyday life each offer different avenues to approach these concerns. Each requires a perceptive response to its purported rules of engagement.