Blog > Cormac Russell

Thisness: Coming to Our Senses (Part 1 of 3)

Curator's Note: If citizen-led community building is an element of a reimagined democracy, as we have suggested elsewhere, then we need pathways and practices for amplifying and accelerating that element. In the blog below, our friend and colleague Cormac Russell touches on some of these practices in a light and life-giving way.  

Try describing something you see in the place where you live without using a metaphor. Right now, I see a tree outside my window, with brown, red and green flecks on its bark. It’s leaves are being moved by a gentle breeze and shadows are casting across it at different points, changing very rapidly. Now I see the reflection of sunlight on one of the leaves of the tree, which has a dew drop that is yellow in one spot because of its refraction of the sun. On the limb of the branch above the one with the yellow-hued dew drop, I see a brown squirrel, moving swiftly downwards towards the base of the tree. Now it’s on the ground. The ground on which it’s moving is…..

Wow, it’s really hard not to fall into a metaphor…

This exercise reveals my back garden to me in a way that reminds me of the truth of the poet David Wagoner words, in his poem Lost:

  Practices that call our attention to the "thisness" of life are incredibly valuable at a personal and also at a collective level.

‘Wherever you are is here,
And you must treat it
As a powerful stranger.’

Some would describe the practice I’ve just engaged in as meditation, or its more secular description: mindfulness. Others might simply say it's being present to what is there. I don’t think it matters what we call the practice. Personally I like the idea that across many different traditions we are consistently reminded that abundance is revealed through radical appreciation of what is. I’m also personally very aware of how easy it is in the hustle and bustle of daily life to go for days without having such an experience. How easy it is to miss the "thisness" or "isness" of life.

Practices that call our attention to the "thisness" of life are incredibly valuable at a personal and also at a collective level. Such practices call us back to our senses and then outwards to the places we move through, and that move through us. They are therefore foundational to creating a culture of community.

Knowing this person, this tree, this animal, this laneway, this story, this field…is not the act of labeling it, nor rushing to find a metaphor to capture it. It's the act of being "sensable" in its presence and only using metaphors when the metaphor makes the experience even more sensational.

One of the ways we become senseless to the "thisness" of life is to label it: the stranger, the foreigner, the enemy etc. Judging destroys community; curious appreciative description enhances it. The other way to dislocate and dismember ourselves is by primarily focusing on that which is not there, and therefore not local or within the reach of our senses.

Choosing to start with a focus on that which is external, and beyond our own senses and our influence is to inadvertently render that which is proximate and in plain sight, invisible.

Read: Thisness: Coming to Our Senses (Part 2 of 3)

Blogger Profile

Cormac Russell's picture

Cormac Russell is Managing Director of Nurture Development, Director of ABCD Europe and a faculty member of the Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) Institute at Northwestern University, Chicago. He has trained communities, agencies, NGOs and governments in ABCD and other strengths-based approaches in Kenya, Rwanda, Southern Sudan, South Africa, the UK, Ireland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Canada and Australia.

Latest Blog

In my previous blog, I shared the first six of eleven shifts in mindset and approach required to move from a deficit-based to an Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) response to COVID-19. I affirmed the view that now isn’t the time to abandon ABCD principles and practices in favour of top-down deficit-based relief efforts. Now is the time to accelerate ABCD on every street. This week I will share the next five shifts (Table 1.2.).

Over the next few months, I will regularly share new parts/sections of an emerging ‘Guide for Professionals working in Citizen space, during and beyond COVID-19’. I hope you’ll tell me what’s useful and what’s not, and that you’ll also share some stories that support us all to see practical ways to be responsive and generative, in these challenging times.

The reality of COVID-19 is sinking in. This pandemic is likely to be a long and drawn-out one. It also is reasonable to assume that it will not be the last of its kind. Nevertheless, it is encouraging to see that critical public health messages are getting through regarding hand-washing, physical distance, limits on congregation and the need for self-isolation both as a preventive and recovery measure.

The reflections of the last two blogs in mind, I’d like to share an ABCD practice I find really helpful in hatching possibilities from inside out. Or in coming to our senses. Please remember you don’t require all of your senses to engage. Helen Keller had three senses, yet led a more sensational life than most people with five sense ever do.

Jane Jacobs' (an American-Canadian journalist, author, and activist who significantly influenced urban studies) advice to communities is to stop being subservient to those with grand visions and “Do what’s right for now and the future will turn out as well as it can.”

The Welfare State is an important extension of our human community’s capacity to care; not a replacement for it. Communities produce care (full-stop) and the systems or service world should simply be the support to that care where required, a resource to carers and not the source of care.

I’ve had the privilege of seeing a lot of professional practitioners wrestle with the dilemmas that Asset-Based Community Development presents - serving while walking backwards being chief among them.