About six months ago, I moved to the Monastic Academy in Vermont. MAPLE for short.
You may have curiosities / questions about what that is and why I moved there. But I'll save that for another time.
I was having a conversation last week about some cultural infrastructure that exists at MAPLE (that I particularly appreciate), and these ideas seemed worth writing up.
Note that MAPLE is a young place, less than a decade old in its current form. So, much of it is "experimental." These ideas aren't time-tested. But my personal experience of them has been surprisingly positive, so far.
I hope you get value out of playing with these ideas in your head or even playing with various implementations of these ideas.
1. The Care Role or Care People
MAPLE loves its roles. All residents have multiple roles in the community.
Some of them are fairly straightforward and boring. E.g. someone's role is to write down the announcements made at meals and then post them on Slack later.
Some of them are like "jobs" or "titles". E.g. someone is the bookkeeper. Someone is the Executive Director.
One special role I had the honor of holding for a few months was the Care role.
The Care role's primary aim is to watch over the health and well-being of the community as a group. This includes their physical, mental, emotional, and psychological well-being.
The Care role has a few "powers."
The Care role can offer check-ins or "Care Talks" to people. So if I, in the Care role, notice someone seems to be struggling emotionally, I can say, "Hey would you like to check in at some point today?" and then schedule such a meeting. (MAPLE has a strict schedule, and this is not something people would normally be able to do during work hours, but it's something Care can do.)
People can also request Care Talks from Care.
The Care role also has the power to plan / suggest Care Days. These are Days for community bonding and are often either for relaxation or emotional processing. Some examples of Care Days we had: we went bowling; we did a bunch of Circling; we visited a nearby waterfall.
The Care role can request changes to the schedule if they believe it would benefit the group's well-being. E.g. asking for a late wake-up. (Our usual wake-up is 4:40AM!)
Ultimately though, the point of this is that it's someone's job to watch over the group in this particular way. That means attending to the group field, learning how to read people even when they are silent, being attentive to individuals but also to the "group as a whole."
For me as Care, it gave me the permission and affordance to devote part of my brain function to tracking the group. Normally I would not bother devoting that much energy and attention to it because I know I wouldn't be able to do much about it even if I were tracking it.
Why devote a bunch of resource to tracking something without the corresponding ability / power to affect it?
But since it was built into the system, I got full permission to track it and then had at least some options for doing something about what I was noticing.
This was also a training opportunity for me. I wasn't perfect at the job. I felt drained sometimes. I got snippy and short sometimes. But it was all basically allowing me to train and improve at the job, as I was doing it. No one is perfect at the Care role. Some people are more suitable than others. But no one is perfect at it.
The Care role also has a Care assistant. The Care assistant is someone to pick up the slack when needed or if Care goes on vacation or something. In practice, I suspect I split doing Care Talks fairly evenly with the Care assistant, since those are a lot for one person to handle. And, people tend to feel more comfortable with certain Care people over others, so it's good to give them an option. The Care assistant is also a good person for the Care role to get support from, since it tends to be more challenging for the Care role to receive Care themselves.
I could imagine, for larger groups, having a Care Team rather than a single Care role with Care assistant.
That said, there is a benefit to having one person hold the mantle primarily. Which is to ensure that someone is mentally constructing a model of the group plus many of the individuals within it, keeping the bird's eye view map. This should be one of Care's main mental projects. If you try to distribute this task amongst multiple people, you'll likely end up with a patchy, stitched-together map.
In addition, understanding group dynamics and what impacts the group is another good mental project for the Care person. E.g. learning how it impacts the group when leaders exhibit stress. Learning how to use love languages to tailor care for individuals. Etc.
1.5. The Ops Role
As an addendum, it's worth mentioning the Ops role too.
At MAPLE, we follow a strict schedule and also have certain standards of behavior.
The Ops role is basically in charge of the schedule and the rules and the policies at MAPLE. They also give a lot of feedback to people (e.g. "please be on time"). This is a big deal. It is also probably the hardest role.
It is important for the Ops role and the Care role to not be the same person, if you can afford it.
The Ops role represents, in a way, "assertive care." The Care role represents "supportive care." These are terms about healthy, skillful parenting that I read originally from the book Growing Up Again.
You can read more about supportive and assertive care here.
Basically, assertive points to structure, and supportive points to nurture. Both are vital.
Care builds models of the group's physical and emotional well-being, how their interactions are going, and reading people.
Ops builds models of what parts of the structure / schedule are important, how to be fair, how to be reasonable, noticing where things are slipping, building theories as to why, and figuring out adjustments. Ops has to learn how to give and receive feedback a lot more. Ops has to make a bunch of judgment calls about what would benefit the group and what would harm the group (in the short-term and long-term), and ultimately has to do it without a higher authority telling them what to do.
It's a difficult position, but it complements the Care role very well.
As Care, I noticed that people seemed to be worse off and struggled more when the Ops role failed to hold a strong, predictable, and reasonable container. The Ops role is doing something that ultimately cares for people's emotional, mental, and physical well-being—same as Care. But they do it from a place of more authority and power.
As Care, I would sometimes find myself wanting to do some "Ops"-like things—like remind people about rules or structures. But it's important for Care to avoid handling those tasks, so that people feel more open and not have that "up for them" with Care. Care creates a space where people can process things and just get support.
It's not really beneficial for Care to take on the Ops role, and it's not beneficial for Ops to take on the Care role. This creates floppiness and confusion.
2. Support Committees
Sometimes, people struggle at MAPLE. Once in a while, they struggle in a way that is more consistent and persistent, in an "adaptive challenge" way. A few Care Talks aren't sufficient for helping them.
If someone starts struggling in this way, MAPLE can decide to spin up a support committee for that person. Let's call this struggling person Bob.
The specific implementation at MAPLE (as far as I know, at this particular time) is:
- Three people are selected to be on Bob's support committee.
- Some factors in deciding those people include: Is Bob comfortable with them? Do they have time? Do they want to support Bob? Do they seem like they'd do a decent job of supporting Bob?
- The way the decision actually gets made differs for each case, but it probably always involves the Executive Director.
- The support committee meets with Bob about once a week.
- They discuss ways they can be supportive to Bob. Could he use reminders to avoid caffeine? Could he use an exercise accountability person? Could he use regular Care Talks? Could he use help finding a therapist?
- They also give Bob feedback of various kinds. E.g. maybe Bob has been making chit-chat during silent periods; maybe Bob has been yelling things at Alice when he gets scared; maybe Bob is taking naps during work period. In this frame, it should be clear that Bob is the responsible party for his own growth and improvement and well-being. Ultimately he has to hold to his commitments / responsibilities / roles in the community, and the support committee can't do that for him. But they can help him as much as seems reasonable / worth trying.
- Current implementation of this doesn't have a pre-set deadline for when the committee ceases, but there are check-ins with the Executive Director to see how things are progressing with Bob and the support committee.
- Sometimes, it might come to make sense to ask Bob to leave the community, if things aren't improving after some time has passed (3-6 months maybe?). If everyone put in their best effort, within reason, and still Bob can't hold to his commitments, despite everyone's best intentions, then there may be a decision to part ways.
- Hopefully most of the time, the support committee thing works enough to get Bob to a place where he's no longer struggling and can get back into the flow of things without a support committee.
I appreciate support committees!
They're trying to strike a tricky balance between being supportive and holding people accountable. But they keep communication channels open and treat it like a two-way street.
Bob isn't totally in the dark about what's going on. He isn't being suddenly told there's a problem and that he can't stay. He also isn't being held totally responsible, as one might be at a normal job. "Either shape up or ship out" sort of thing. It's also not the thing where people act "open and supportive" but really it's still "on you" to fix yourself, and no one lifts a finger, and you have to do all the asking.
With a support committee, Bob gets regular support from the community in a structured way. He gets to set goals for himself, in front of others. He gets regular feedback on how he's doing on those goals. If he needs help, he has people who can brainstorm with him on how to get that help, and if they commit to helping him in some way, they actually do it. If he needs someone to talk to, he can have regularly scheduled Care Talks.
He is neither being coddled nor neglected.
It's also helpful to generally foster a feeling that the community is here for you and that there's a desire to do what's best for everyone, from all parties.
Would this kind of thing work everywhere for all groups? No, of course not.
It's a bit resource-intensive as it currently is. It also seems to ask for a high skill level and value-aligned-ness from people. But there's room to play around with the specific format.
3. The Schedule
The Schedule at MAPLE is not viable for most people in most places.
But many people who come to stay at MAPLE find out that the Schedule is something they hugely benefit from having. It's often named as one of the main pros to MAPLE life.
Basically, there's a rigid schedule in place. It applies to five-and-a-half days out of the week. (Sundays are weird because we go into town to run an event; Mondays are off-schedule days.)
But most days, it's the same routine, and everyone follows it. (The mornings and evenings are the most regimented part of the day, with more flexibility in the middle part.)
4:40AM chanting. 5:30AM meditation. 7AM exercise. 8:05AM breakfast. Then work. Etc. Etc. Up until the last thing, 8:30PM chanting.
Which is more surprising:
- The fact most people, most of the time, show up on time to each of these activities? (Where "on time" means being a little bit early?)
- Or the fact that often there's at least one person who's at least one minute late, despite there theoretically being very few other things going on, relatively speaking?
Anyway, here's why I think the Schedule is worth talking about as a cultural infrastructure idea:
It's more conducive to getting into spontaneous motion.
You don't have to plan (as much) about what you're going to do, when. The activities come one right after the other.
At MAPLE I don't get stuck in bed, wondering whether to get up now or later.
I have spent hours and hours of my life struggling with getting out of bed (yay depression). Regardless of my mood or energy level, I just get out of bed, and it's automatic, and I don't think about it, and suddenly I'm putting on my socks, and I'm out the door.
This has translated somewhat to my off-schedule / vacation days also.
When left to my own devices, I do not exercise. I have never managed to exercise regularly as an adult. While I'm on-schedule, I just do it. I don't push myself harder than I can push; sometimes I take it easy and focus on stretching and Tai Chi. But sometimes I sprint, and sometimes I get sore, and my stamina is noticeably higher than before.
This is so much better than what it was like without the Schedule! It has proven to be more effective than my years of attempts to debug the issue using introspection.
The Schedule lets me just skip the decision paralysis. I often find myself "just spontaneously doing it." It becomes automatic habit. Like starting the drive home and "waking up" to the fact I am now home.
This is relaxing. It's more relaxing to just exercise than to internally battle over whether to exercise. It's more relaxing to just get up and start the day than to internally struggle over whether to get up. There is relief in it.
It's easier to tell when people are going through something.
As Care, it was my job to track people's overall well-being.
As it turns out, if someone starts slipping on the Schedule (showing up even a bit late to things more often), it's often an indication of something deeper.
The Schedule provides all these little fishing lines that tug when someone could use some attention, and the feedback is much faster than a verbal check-in.
Sometimes I would find myself annoyed by someone falling through or breaking policy or whatever. If I dug into it, I'd often find out they were struggling on a deeper level. Like I might find out their mom is in the hospital, or they are struggling with a flare up of chronic pain, or something like that.
Once I picked up on that pattern, I learned to view people's small transgressions or tardiness as a signal for more compassion, rather than less. Where my initial reaction might be to tense up, feel resistance, or get annoyed, I can remind myself that they're probably going through some Real Shit and that I would struggle in that situation too, and then I relax.
Everyone's doing it together.
Everyone doing something together is conducive conditions for creating common knowledge, even when there's no speaking involved. Common knowledge is a huge efficiency gain. And I suspect it's part of why it's internally easy for me to "just do it." (And maybe points to why it's harder for me to "just do it" when no one else notices or cares.)
Having more shared reality with each other reduces the need for verbal communication, formal group decision-making processes, and internal waffling.
If everyone can see the fire in the kitchen, you don't need to say a word. People will just mobilize and put out the fire.
If everyone sees that Carol is late, and Carol knows everyone has seen that she is late, it's harder for anyone to create alternative stories, like "Carol was actually on time." No one has to waste time on that.
There are lots of more flexible versions of the Schedule that people use and benefit from already. Shared meals in group houses, for instance.
But I'd love to see more experimentation with this, in communities or group houses or organizations or what-have-you.
Dragon Army attempted some things in this vein, and I saw them getting up early and exercising together on a number of occasions. I'd love to see more attempts along these lines.
I think it's worth sharing that 3 of the ideas you brought up are, at least within zen, historically common to monastic practice, albeit changed in ways to better fit the context of MAPLE. You call them the care role, the ops role, and the schedule; I see them as analogues of the jisha, the jiki, and the schedule.
The jisha, in a zen monastery, is first and foremost the attendant of the abbot (caveat: some monasteries every teacher and high-ranking priest will have their own jisha). But in addition to this, the jisha is thought of as the "mother" of the sangha, with responsibilities to care for the monks, nuns, and guests, care for the sick, organize cleaning, and otherwise be supportive of the needs of people. This is similar to your care role in some ways, but MAPLE seems to have focused more on the care aspect and dropped the gendered-role aspects.
The jiki (also jikijitsu or jikido) is responsible for directing the movement of the students. They are the "father" to the jisha's "mother", serving as (possibly strict) disciplinarians to keep the monastery operating as intended by the abbot, enforcing rules and handing out punishments. This sounds similar to the Ops role, albeit probably with fewer slaps to the face and blows to the head.
The schedule is, well, the schedule. I expect MAPLE's schedule, though "young", is building on centuries of monastic schedule tradition while adding in new things. I think it's worth adding that the schedule is also there to support deep practice, because there's a very real way that having to make decisions can weaken samadhi, and having all decisions eliminated creates the space in which calm abiding can more easily arise.
Ops is the hand that pulls you forward, Care the hand at your back.
This reminds me how the Amish Do Things, and some frustrations I generally have with my social environment, (and maybe also a nagging curiosity I had about Dragon Army, which I think specifically aimed to address this particular problem?).
A friend mentioned when he came back from MAPLE that the fairly strict rules about going to bed on time turned "stay up late" into a non-option, and he actually just went to sleep because the choices were "sleep" or "read." I similarly have a sense that actually having an environment that really made "not exercise" not an option would really help me.
I know of (I think?) multiple group houses that have tried to implement morning meditation, which failed due to gradual erosion/entropy. I only know of Dragon Army implementing group exercise (and making some nontrivial bid to be an all-encompassing-social-environment that had a shot of succeeding in the particular the dimensions you describe here).
I'm not that optimistic about going to MAPLE to fix the exercise issue in particular (or the various other psychological issues) because I don't expect to retain them after going elsewhere.
I'm also not that optimistic about replicating it elsewhere, because it seems like it requires some moving parts interlocking at once, that's just hard to bootstrap.
What's your sense of which pieces are loadbearing, here? Does it seem tractable to build either a grouphouse or org that tries to do any of this?
It feels tractable to me. I feel like there are lots of levers to play around with.
Pieces I suspect may be load-bearing:
I do think this is probably the main bottleneck, actually. (I have a post-concept dangling in my to-do list that "the leadership bottleneck" is one of the key things facing the Village. (And, alas, also, the Mission. Competent people are rare and the world is big).
I feel very compelled by this! I would love to help figure out how to approach this bottleneck. I have some ideas.
My sense is that there are some useful funnels already in place that one could take advantage of for finding potential people, and there are effective, growth-y training programs one could also take advantage of. There are maybe bottlenecks in money + space in specific training programs + getting the right people to the right training programs.
I think there's maybe two distinct bottlenecks:
The first one is something like "entry level leadership", where you're just getting people over the hump of "I can be a person who has agency and organizers/leads at all". I don't think growth-training-programs quite work here because people may not even think of themselves as potential leaders to train.
(In the case of Any Given Local Village, I think the deal is that the village needs to be organized such that it naturally causes people to incrementally gain leadership skills, organically as a part of being in the village)
The second would be "okay, though, we actually need people with particular competencies here – an understanding of How Humans Work as well as (potentially) some specific skills relating to whatever you're leading people towards (i.e. parkour, programming, meditation, rationality)."
It has become really salient to me recently that good practice involves lots of prolific output in low-stakes throwaway contexts. Whereas a core piece of EA and rationalist mindsets is steering towards high-stakes things to work on, and treating your outputs as potentially very impactful and not to be thrown away. In my own mind “practice mindset” and “impact mindset” feel very directly in tension.
I have a feeling that something around this mindset difference is part of why world-saving orientation in a community might be correlated with inadequate opportunities for low-stakes leadership practice.
This is actually exactly why I think the rationality community / memeset makes more sense as entry level EA than the EA community
(recognizing that there's definitely areas within the rationality community / memeset that reinforce fairly similar high-stakes-memes as the EA memeset. But my experience is that overall the rationality community doesn't put nearly as pervasive pressure to be 'impactful' – there's a lot more room for just exploring interesting ideas because they are neat, or whatnot)
Worth noting here that the Schedule at MAPLE is very conducive for creating these low-stakes contexts. In fact, inside the Schedule, you are always in such a context...
There is a world-saving mission at MAPLE, but at MAPLE, it does not define people's worth or whether they deserve care / attention or whether they belong in the community. I think the issue with both the EA and rationalist community is that people's "output" is too easily tied to their sense of worth. I could probably write many words on this phenomenon in the Bay community.
It is hard to convey in mere words what MAPLE has managed to do here. There is a clearer separation between "your current output level" and "your deserving-ness / worthiness as a human." It was startling to experience this separation occurring on a visceral level within me. Now I'm much more grounded, self-confident, and less likely to take things personally, and this shift feels permanent and also ongoing.
I think this is a very important point, and that anyone trying to build community around a mission should pay attention to it.
Good to train in a gym before you fight.
I think growth-training programs actually do work for the former.
E.g. My CFAR workshop wasn't something I decided to go to because I was thinking about training leadership. But it none-the-less helped unlock some of this "entry level leadership" thing. Much of the same happens with Circling and other workshops that help unblock people.
So far what seems to work here is training programs that do any kind of developmental training / leveling up. Ideally they work on you regardless of what stage you happen to be and just help propel you to the next stage.
Of course, not all the people who go through those programs end up interested in leadership, but this is probably fine, and I suspect trying to pre-screen for 'leadership potential' is a waste of effort, and you should just ride selection effects. (Similar to how people who emigrate correlate with having skill, resourcefulness, and gumption.)
Sometimes I feel like the youth (i.e. me) have forgotten how to have community, and this post comes from a friend of mine who I think figured out some ways of doing it at her monastery, in ways that I feel are within my reach in my own community. I think about the specific ideas in this post every now and then, and I think about the fact that this sort of thing can work even more often.