Reflections of St-Petersburg

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Czar Peter The Great's Summer Palace

I’ve been back from Russia almost three full weeks now, but I still feel like I am only just catching up with myself. Maybe it’s because since returning I’ve been traveling back and forth from Puerto Rico to Texas as part of The People’s Institute’s Undoing Racism statewide effort there, and have hardly had a chance to get grounded here at home. Writing this reflection and looking through the photos I took help me finally land.

Harmony Institute’s Second International Conference on Self and Other: The Sacred Space for Dialogue in St. Petersburg was absolutely wonderful! My workshop, Social Identities, Culture, Self and Other: An Integral Transformative Approach, went quite well, with about 25 Russian participants (and one US American): psychotherapists, sociologists, organizational development, human resources, and marketing professionals and others concerned with the conference’s theme of understanding diversity and difference.

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Katya Matveeva, Irina Ruklinskaya, Anna Rodina, Jean-Marc Randin, (background) Sergey Valukhov, & Asya Bubnova

The several other workshops I was able to attend were quite enjoyable and gave me a sense of how Russian professionals are currently approaching issues of diversity as related to gender and feminism, mass communications, art therapy, management, and personal growth.

Not surprisingly, the best part of the conference was meeting people, making new friends, and building upon relationships already begun, especially with my Harmony Institute hosts.

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Znamenka Palace Hotel

The conference, held at the Znamenka Palace, just walking distance from Peter The Great’s spectacular Summer Palace, was a very full experience of teaching, learning, and sharing across cultures. Clearly, I met most of my desired outcomes: (1) to share my perspective regarding the role of social group identities and the importance of social power dynamics for integral well being and human development in the context of diversity and otherness; (2) that this perspective and framework be received and considered by psychotherapists, OD consultants, scholars and social change workers; (3) to develop and nurture authentic relationships within this international network; and (4) to plant seeds for future collaboration.

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Scott Thompson & Alexander Badkhen

It was also great to spend some time with Scott Thompson, Program Coordinator with Intersections International in NYC. Scott and I had met at the Association for the Advancement of Psychosynthesis conference last year, though it was only until now that we had this chance to talk more intentionally about our shared commitment to personal development in the context of social transformation.

Another desired outcome attained was that I also got to learn, or rather, begin to observe similarities and differences between Russia, the US and Puerto Rico, both broadly culturally and more specifically related to approaches to transformative work. My preliminary impression is that folks there, like most helping professionals, transpersonal and integral psychology, and spirituality folks in circles I’m connected to on this side of the planet, are primarily concerned with personal growth and professional development; most of the focus is on personal, individual level growth, and some organizational development. There, like here, I sense that the dialogue on social group dynamics and psychosocial complexities across individual/collective levels begins to push the envelope of people’s current operating paradigm. I sense people are curious, intrigued, or perhaps intuitively attracted, even if most do not fully comprehend the scope and depth of integral transformative praxis. [Of course, a 4-hour workshop (only 2 hours factoring in translation time) is barely enough to scratch the surface.]

Beautiful St. Peterburg
Beautiful St. Peterburg

Yet I come away convinced that this framework, analysis and process model is absolutely relevant and applicable in cultural contexts beyond PR and the US. For example, in an exercise facilitated by Scott and Harmony Institute co-director, Alexander Badkhen, using the consciousness-in-action concept of balance and harmony as key principles for well-being and as a core unifying center for the diverse aspects of self, a middle-aged woman of northern Russia shared how she recalled embarrassment and shame that as a child she felt of her father’s ethnicity, and how she had hidden that aspect of her identity ever since. In that same exercise, I noticed how a young woman of somewhat darker complexion and distinct physical features (she was later described to me as being “ethnically different”) positioned herself as far as possible from “the center of balance and harmony”; now, she did not share why, so I have no way of “knowing” what her behavior actually meant for her. But I was left wondering…

The most powerful indication of the relevance and need for this work at the professional, institutional and cross-cultural levels, however, came from an exchange I had with a participant in my workshop, a professor of history of culture and East/West dialogue, who maintained that a major US problem is that the government has refused to deal strongly with immigrants, while suggested it needed to close its borders; somehow I gathered she was not talking about Russian and European immigrants, but Mexicans and other Latin Americans. Again, not all that different from my experiences in the US.

In my various conversations with folks throughout the week, there was no mention of the increase in racial discrimination and violence (as per the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis 2007 report on racism, hate crime and nationalism), though it was acknowledged by one of my hosts as he showed me his beloved city of St. Petersburg on my final day there. In various social contexts, gender dynamics seemed obvious to me; homophobia was barely mentioned, and then only brought up by an Israeli colleague and new friend. Again, similar to my experiences here in PR and in the US, except, perhaps, among people within the social movement circles in which I do much of my work.

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Lenin's Statue

For some reason, navigating these choppy waters between personal psycho-spiritual and the collective socio-political is the challenge that I seem to have chosen — or, I should say, the challenge that seems to have chosen me. In the coming months, I’ll be addressing these issues in another direction: among social activists who tend to work almost exclusively on group identity and collective level issues at the expense of the personal psychological and/or the spiritual. We’ll see how that goes.

Meanwhile, I continue working to bring this integral approach to more people in PR, the US and elsewhere. Beyond “introducing” consciousness-in-action as a framework for liberation and transformation, I will be training people in the process model, people who wish to develop useful applications in counseling, education, community organizing, and social movement building. Hopefully, funding for collaborations with other groups and organizations with similar purpose and integral vision will become available.

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Me in St. Petersburg

So, again, I want to express my deepest appreciation to conference coordinators Anna, Sergey, Irina, and Asya, to Tatiana, Marina, Yelena, and the other Marina, who served so selflessly as interpreters, to Harmony Institute co-founders Alexander Badkhen, Mark Pevzner, for their invitation to participate in the conference—and to all those that made it possible for me to make it there—to share with and learn from my Russian friends, and for the opportunity to add my contribution to this global movement still in the making. I deeply admire all the good work being done throughout Russia by Harmony Institute. And thank them so very much for making me feel so very welcomed in their beautiful country.

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