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Ben Smith (far right) and friends amidst a 'good groove.'  See video below.

No Ego Can Withstand a Good Groove

Editor's Note: Peter Pula, founder of Axiom News, has been engaged in a series of conversations with community-builders from around the world with the intention of fostering Generative Communities. Ben Smith has been a regular participant in those calls. Here we share Ben's reflections after one of their most recent dialogues.

It only occurred to me recently that making music with others is a form of convening; the groove is a field of generativity. I play a lot of old-time music with fiddles, guitars, banjos. String band stuff. There's no band, just a small community of folks who all like the music and show up to our various gigs and jam sessions around Berlin. There are some usual characters, but every time we get together is unique: different musicians, different acoustics, different people listening, different tunes. And every time it's an open question — are we going to find the groove?

When it's there, it's clearly palpable. The timing locks and stays put. The sound of all the individual instruments dissolves into the unity of the tune. There are smiles on people's faces.

  Often the best thing we can do to foster a field of generativity is simply attend to what is before us.

What's most striking is the experience as a performer. When the groove settles in, I disappear. No ego can withstand a good groove. Instead of Ben-playing-music I simply exist as music for a time. "I" only really notice what happened after the fact, because for that time I'm not really there. Time's linearity weakens, while its cyclical and eternal-now aspects come to the fore. It's what makes years of practice all worthwhile. I just call it transcendence.

But how do we get there? How can we create a groove?

It can't be forced. It cannot be imposed by will from without. Yes, we need certain foundations. The groove cannot arise if the musicians do not have some basic faculty on their instrument. They must be able to tune to one another. They usually need to have some common pool of tunes. They must be able to listen to each other.

This is the foundation. But even with the foundation in place, we still have no assurance of a groove. The groove, it seems to me, arises only when we let go of outcomes, when we let go of making mistakes or making a good impression, when we let go of the ego as separate from the rest of the world. And this we do with our attention.

Like a row of seedlings sown into spring soil, sometimes the groove happens, sometimes it doesn't. The only thing we can add to improve our chances is attention, which for me is just another word for love. By attending to others, we simultaneously weaken the ego's sense of isolation and give room for the shared field to emerge. It might not look like much, it might seem like we're "doing nothing at all," but I think often the best thing we can do to foster a field of generativity is simply attend to what is before us.

The Bear City Ramblers play Booth Shot Lincoln:

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Benjamin Smith is an applied anthropologist devoted to figuring out just what community building is. He believes that communities have everything they need to create their own desired future, but that some basic structure for moving to that way of being might be helpful.

Ben is interested in tools, but not for their own sake. The entire course of human history is about our species figuring out new cultural practices, new technologies, new forms of organization and then using them to achieve entirely different results.

His explorations in community building over the last years have included experiments in traditional media, organizing a learning circle, writing a book about the community-building cycle, and generally looking for fellow travellers who want to chart this new territory. Both his background in anthropology and philosophy as well as his time living abroad in Russia, Egypt, and Germany have contributed to the broad perspective and global points of comparison he brings to the work.

Ben lives with his wife and two young daughters in Berlin, Germany where he also plays old-timey music, tends a vegetable garden, builds acoustic guitars, and enjoys a nice beer every now and then.

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Fostering generative community is filled with delicate paradoxes. One of those that seems to frustrate and confuse in turns is the role of tools. Which is it? Are there great tools that we can adapt to various communities in service of generativity or is each community so unique that we should abandon all tools and focus our effort on refining our ability to sense and respond to each moment as it presents itself?

Community building is rife with fascinating — and sometimes frustrating — paradoxes. Keeping one's mouth shut is often the best way to move a conversation forward. Planning is necessary and useless. We arrive at a place of vibrant being only through years of doing.

I see community building as an emergent set of practices that centers around fostering health and vibrancy in communities based on the knowledge and resources already present. How does this work, exactly? Well, like I said, it's emergent. But one commonality seems to have arisen clearly out of the initial confusion. Namely, community building involves some combination of convening and narration.

I've spent a great deal of time with others who are passionate about community building — people who see the enormous potential in our communities to find their own solutions, to muster their own resources, and to move toward a shared future of their own design. This is an inspiring and attractive view of community that shines like a beacon in our collective future. And yet as clear as the goal may be, the path is still sometimes hard to see. Getting there requires that we look down from where we are going and find the next, best step today.

The 20th century was wildly successful on any number of counts. Global measures of health, life expectancy, wealth, employment, wellbeing, school attendance, and more grew faster than ever before. To be sure, the rising tide did not lift all boats, but if we step back and look at the global score, the century brought forth a number of big wins.