Re-imagining Self, Other, & the Natural World, Session Two

This article is a report from 10th Anniversary Conference of the Boston Research Center for the 21st Century (renamed the Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue in 2009). Held in September 2003 and called "Reimagining Self, Other, and the Natural World," the conference consisted of two sessions. Session Two, which is covered here, focused on the theme of relational-cultural theory. Session Two speakers included Jan Surrey, Christina Robb, and Kris Rondeau. The conference was cosponsored by the The Center for Respect of Life and the Environment (Richard M. Clugston, Director) and the Harvard-Yenching Institute (Tu Weiming, Director). You can read about Session One here.

Introductory Remarks on Relational-Cultural Theory

Jan Surrey began by expressing her appreciation for the way in which the conference brought three different communitarian approaches together “as a resource for building a culture of peace.” As she prepared to speak of her work, and that of others in the field of relational-cultural theory, she expressed her admiration for Jean Baker Miller whose ground-breaking work on the psychology of women opened up new ways of thinking and being. Miller’s book, Toward a Psychology of Women (1976), and the research it inspired by Judith Jordan, Irene Stiver, Jan Surrey, and others associated with the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at the Stone Center (Wellesley College), is widely acknowledged as revolutionary. “While she could not join us today, Jean Baker Miller is here in her vision, her words, her relational presence, and her commitment to the development of women as a resource for social transformation,” Surrey said.

In an effort to locate the development of a psychology of women within a larger context, Surrey referred to other social justice and anti-war movements and the post-modern development of listening to voices from the margins of society. She described this process as a movement away from the “tiny parts” to the “fluid movements and patterns of connection and interaction between and among the elements.” With reference to Miller’s recognition of “the culturally-constructed split in Western culture,” which assigned the work of tending to relationships to women who provided a “matrix of connection,” Surrey quoted from Toward a Psychology of Women: “Humanity has been held to a limited and distorted view of itself… precisely by virtue of its subordination of women.”

Surrey explained that traditionally, the work of “relational practice” has been viewed as the backdrop to healthy development, “a means not an end.” Consequently, it has remained obscured, distorted, and devalued in Western society, which emphasizes individualism and competition. “At best, it [relational practice] has been relegated to the private sphere,” she said. Indeed, the work of the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute has been focused, among other things, on developing a language that describes the qualities and nuances of growth-fostering connection, which include empathy, authenticity, mutuality, mutual responsiveness, mutual presence, and creative movement.

Surrey further emphasized the importance of understanding the “larger cultural surround of all relationships” in order to understand how people define their relationships. In this context, she reminded the audience that “power-over institutions and relations,” along with the structural violence of racism, classim, sexism, heterosexism, and other attitudes of injustice, affect our most basic and intimate relationships. “In many ways our dominant culture is a culture of disconnection,” she said.

Surrey added that her own study and practice of Buddhism and Insight Mediation have informed her work by bringing a spiritual dimension to it. She suggested that “Women and other marginalized groups within this dominant Western culture have been the devalued carriers of Eastern and indigenous wisdom and insight,” and expressed hope and excitement at the “bridging dialogue and mutual unfolding” of relational theory, Eastern thought, and indigenous philosophy and practice that marked the context of this conference.

Christina Robb

Christina Robb began with a quote from Jean Baker Miller who said, “We did this by listening to women and really taking it seriously and not stopping when it made us have to move beyond the bounds of current theory. . . . Then we end up from this being better able, we think, to offer an understanding of all people, not just women.”

Referring to the development of relational-cultural theory in the 1970s and its original theorists and proponents, a topic at the center of her forthcoming book This Changes Everything (working title), Robb spoke of how the theorists at the Stone Center recognized that their experience as mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, and many other roles was always the experience of being in relationship and never of being unrelated to others. From this awareness, she explained, the original psychotherapists in this field decided to rethink the basic assumptions underlying their work in the field of psychology. “They decided to alter a basic assumption. . . they decided to assume that everything is connected, and that the connections between and among everything and everyone are at least as important as what they connect.”

Noting the way in which Jan Surrey psychologizes the Buddhist notion of dependent co-arising with the phrase “co-dependent co-arising,” Robb explained that Surrey’s phrase stresses the many ways in which relationships are essential for everyone, from the moment of birth through every interaction and decision in life. “Nothing can be understood in isolation because nothing is in isolation,” she said. Without this awareness, Robb suggested that attempts to understand human beings lends an air of unreality to human experience, “like some kind of a magic trick or circus act, the way a compass or the migration of birds looks to someone with no knowledge of the earth’s magnetic field.” By using “a compass that was moved by relationships,” relational-cultural theorists were able to describe a state of being that was inextricably connected to everything surrounding it.

Like Surrey, Robb contextualized the development of this awareness and the research that described it within major twentieth-century social movements, such as the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement. Similarly, the then-accepted notion that growth implied separation “started to look like a political idea that worked to divide and rule people who often courageously fought to stay connected.”

Noticing that strong, healthy women tended to have strong and lasting relationships, Jean Baker Miller then developed an explanation of five “good things” that were going on in the healthy relationships she studied:

  1. Zest. While Miller has never been 100 percent satisfied with this term, the essence of it is the sense of vitality and energy, a “sense of more life,” that comes with any episode of interaction in a good relationship . Even if the feelings that are flowing between two people are those of sadness or anger, the “spacious” feeling, the “vibrancy” that people experience when they “can confide in someone they trust, someone who is really listening, and they know for certain, from the response, that their listener ‘gets it,’” is a characteristic of all good relationships. “The intense aliveness Miller talks about is the special emotional marker of every healthy connection,” Robb explained, “no matter what the people who are connecting are doing or talking about.”
  2. Power and Effectiveness. Feeling “empowered to act” through listening, responding to feelings, and helping each other move in relationships “is the way we play a part in augmenting or diminishing other people,” according to Miller. Often this empowering connection leads to other connections, as people encourage each other to reach out in order to grow or resolve difficulties. In this way “power with others” or “relational power,” as Jan Surrey describes it, builds and creates a sense of energy among people because their real capacity to act is supported.
  3. Knowledge. Robb explained that by immersing oneself in relationship, one increases both self-knowledge and knowledge of others. This happens because “A lot of what people say and do in relationships is to explore and find out more about how they feel,” Robb said. As a client of Judy Jordan’s phrased it, “I connect with myself through connecting with you. I know myself partly through you knowing me.”
  4. Self-Esteem. In healthy relationships, a sense of self-worth comes from feeling more alive, more empowered, and more knowledgeable about oneself and others. According to Miller, “We cannot develop a sense of worth until the people important to us convey that they recognize and acknowledge our experience.”
  5. A Sense of Greater Connection and Desire for Even More Connection. The previous four “good things” enhance caring for anyone we share a healthy relationship with. Miller views this as “much more valuable” than being loved or cared about; rather, she describes it as “the active, outgoing feeling of caring about another person because that person is so valued in our eyes.” The result is a desire for a fuller connection and a real concern for the other person’s well-being. And like other aspects of these five “good things,” this desire for connection spills over to other people as well.

In addition to her explanation of Miller’s five “good things,” Robb spoke of how thoughts and feelings occur simultaneously. “No normal feeling is just raw, with no thought content; we always feel good or bad about something, and it may be something very interesting,” she said. Returning to Miller’s words: “Most of the time we don’t know our feelings until we try to put them into interaction with other people.” Thus “feeling-thoughts” only become clear as we express them within the context of relationships.

Another idea that Robb shared is that, according to relational-cultural theorists, “only good relationships can teach you to limit the damage from bad relationships.” Quoting Judy Jordan from a 1999 Colloquium, Robb noted that “You don’t just leave a bad relationship; you need good relationships to help you leave bad relationships.”

Robb also addressed the importance of empathy, which Judy Jordan described as “Being moved by someone who is moved by you.” This connection says “I’m going to be with you in your experience so you don’t have to be alone in that experience.” This sharing applies to both good and bad times, Robb pointed out. “Sometimes empathy feels like holding something with somebody, holding the relationship like a sheet you’re getting ready to fold or spread, except that the object isn’t to do anything but just hold it,” she said. But even at those moments, there is a sense of possibility. According to the late Irene Stiver, “If someone is with you, all things can evolve.”

Through the “good things” noted above, through the practice of empathy, and by holding differences in a way that allows the relationship to evolve and become enlarged, Jean Baker Miller’s vision of “growth-fostering relationships” is possible. It is a vision that allows people to be real, to express differences, and yet to always know that the relationship itself matters more than any disruption, and is too valuable to let go of.


Jan Surrey responded briefly to Robb’s presentation by elaborating on the impact of disconnection. She observed, for example, that our human disconnections “have gotten in the way of our ability to relate fully to the natural world.” She went on to suggest that these human disconnections are, in effect, “the source of the violation that we carry into our relationship with nature.” In this way, our relationship with nature reflects our human interactions and becomes expressed through the “dominance model.”

Referring to her work with Sarah Conn and also to Martin Buber’s writing on “mutuality with a tree,” Surrey posed the question: “Do the qualities of growth-fostering connection hold in relation to other species and in the natural world?” Surrey and Conn are working together to explore this, and other questions in depth, with their shared quest to understand what can be learned from a close connection with the natural world. In her comments on disconnection, Surrey also noted that “Men and women deal with disconnection differently. Men tend to see protection in isolation while women hold on out of the terror of isolation.”

Kris Rondeau: Relational-Cultural Issues in the Context of Successful labor Organizing

Labor union organizer Kris Rondeau spoke to the practical applications of relational-cultural theory as she related her experience in helping to build the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW). She approached her presentation by offering to tell her story of how, with her associates, she was able to develop an “organizing model that we think will work anywhere for any kind of worker, and no matter how large the group.” She also mentioned her experience of developing a model of labor relations, but explained that she would not elaborate on that in this presentation.

Rondeau alluded to the influence of the nonviolence movement and the work of Jean Baker Miller, Jan Surrey, and others on her own work in relationship building. She also spoke of how “our love for our grandmothers” and their immigrant experience had something in it that “we had to relearn.”

Rondeau included two union organizing experiences in her talk, starting with her story of the 5,000-member HUCTW. Returning to the beginning, she stated that there was not, initially, a clear intention to organize. Rather, a group of workers in the Harvard Medical School who had been active in the Women’s Movement went to the dean in hopes of talking about compensation. His response was that he would only talk to them as a group if and when they organized themselves into a union. Smiling broadly, she explained that the women then looked at each other at that moment and said, “Hey, what a good idea!”

When the group lost its first election in 1977, and then the second election in 1981, they realized that the process of gaining majority support for a union would be difficult due to deep resistance from workers and the administration. She spoke of how Harvard University conducted “full-force anti-union campaigns” that shook the confidence of many of those who were, initially, sympathetic to the idea of a union.

Drawing on her experience, Rondeau stated that “An anti-union campaign is a powerful Class 5 Hurricane aimed at the self-confidence, the hopefulness, the heart of each employee.” And yet, positive energy prevailed, even after the “heart-breaking” experience of losing the election that would have created a union for Harvard’s clerical and technical workers.

In recounting this experience, Rondeau noted that “all people grow and change in relationships, adults as well as children.” However obvious this may seem, she explained that such thinking was contrary to conventional union organizing wisdom which traditionally taught that “you identify the one-third who are for the union, you ignore the one-third who are against the union, and you go for the middle group.”

By focusing on their ability to form “equal relationships based on trust with each other,” rather than ignoring a third of the workforce, Rondeau came to realize that “relationships are everything in organizing.” In creating individual relationships with each worker, she suggested that the key element was a sense of safety that allows people to change. “Ideas alone do not organize people,” she stated. “But good ideas explored with a trusted friend do.” Ultimately, she explained, “A union becomes a web of interconnected relationships and a safe haven for workers.”

She also talked about how models of how people make choices in political matters did not apply to union organizing. “Organizing a union isn’t about advertising or a marketing idea,” she said. “You can’t approach a union election as if you were convincing people to buy a particular toaster oven.” For one thing, in political elections only about 20 percent of the electorate votes, while 90 percent do so in a union election. “The decision to vote for the union requires a strength of commitment that comes not from individuals alone, but from a community supporting an idea and each other at the same time,” Rondeau said. “A union is a consciously created community.” Furthermore, the tools are listening and talking, not brochures. “It’s painstaking work,” she stated.

Once again, the day came to vote on whether or not the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers would come into being. Rondeau recalled the gathering of 800 workers in Sanders Theater that she encountered at the end of that day. Looking around, she noticed that back of the hall was filled with hundreds of “the quiet ones.” Just after ten o’clock, after all votes had been counted, the announcement was made that the union had won. “Then I heard the loudest noise I have ever heard,” she said.

Realizing that the process of building this union had, eventually, changed the culture at Harvard, Rondeau decided to approach her next union drive differently. Her goal was to change the culture first “by loosening the grip of the dominant culture, by weaving in an alternative morality.” The institution where this thinking was applied was the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester, Massachusetts. There, 2,500 non-union university and hospital workers were “mired in a market culture” that called on them to expand services in an atmosphere of constant cost-cutting. “Workers needed a way to influence what was going on. A voice.”

This initiative focused on relationship-building with workers who were cynical and angry with their employer, as well as disenchanted with the idea of a union due to other poorly-managed union drives. Gradually, workers introduced Rondeau and her associates to their friends, many of whom were anti-union. Her strategy was “to listen, a lot” to life stories and every day realities rather than try to convince anyone that a union was a good idea. Eventually, ongoing conversations had begun by phone with all 2,500 workers.

Over time, it became clear that “listening had changed the workplace” and the culture. “Being listened to teaches people how to listen,” Rondeau pointed out. “It probably goes without saying that people who are not listened to don’t know how to listen. Listening teaches us to hear many voices. And what we hear from others teaches us that egocentric views of our world are inaccurate.” Through listening, Rondeau believes that people gain the perspective of seeing themselves in a larger, even historical, context.

Remembering the power of this process, Rondeau said that “We woke up one morning to the stark realization of how much we cared. The idea of losing an election was not an option.” Because of the relationships that had been built, it was then possible to have informational conversations about what a union can be and do. She took care to avoid a strategy of making people angry. “Anger cannot sustain a union for the long haul,” she said. More importantly, she realized the value of starting with happy, healthy people who cared about their work and felt cared for in their working lives. Similarly, they did not organize “against the boss or around workplace issues,” or do anything to reinforce negative values or polarize the workers. Ultimately, the goal was something that Rondeau believes all workers want: good, productive relationships with their employer within the framework of a kinder workplace. Furthermore, Rondeau is committed to the view that unions help—and want to help—employers meet their goals.

“The union is a living, organic thing that is continuously shaped by what we all bring to it.” This vision, driven by the unifying force of kindness, led to “a stunning victory” at UMASS in which 63% of the workers voted for the union. The culture had changed. A community had been built. And working to further the institution’s goals had become a partnership between management and employees.

Audience Response

A brief discussion with the audience followed Rondeau’s presentation and touched on a number of issues. In response to a question seeking her perspective on the current adversarial relationship between school boards and teachers unions, and the impact of this on children, Rondeau stated that “It’s not working. It’s bad for teachers, bad for management, and bad for kids. It’s totally broken.”

Another person asked if unions are dying. Rondeau replied to this complex question by agreeing that the labor movement is changing and that, furthermore, the “revitalization” of the movement being promoted by traditional union leadership will be much more confrontational than her model would suggest.

Other conference attendees expressed an interest in the specifics of how one might go about changing the entire national culture, and what “opening lines” of communication to conversations might make people receptive to community building. In response to this, Rondeau said that it was important to listen to anything and everything, rather than using literature to make a case for whatever the goal might be. This approach forced the organizers to become skillful in both facing their fear, and in talking to people in an effort to “find a language of storytelling.” She also explained that when insults came along, they would try not to react. Recalling a book entitled Where Animals Go, she also alluded to the way mosquitos have learned to “dodge raindrops” and “fly through” the air in spite of a storm. “When we teach labor-management relations, we teach people to dodge raindrops,” she said.

Jan Surrey on Working with Disconnections

Jan Surrey followed Rondeau’s presentation with a talk about the art of naming and working with disconnections. “Relational practice has everything to do with this challenge of working through disconnections.” She framed the question as follows: “If we are all fundamentally connected, and connection is our most basic yearning, how did we get where we are? And how do we heal and repair the tears, the lost stitches, and the frayed edges of the fabric of our human connectedness?” Furthermore, she related this challenge in personal relationships to our social and global structures and our relationship to the natural world. “This is the Net of Indra that Buddhists speak of,” she said, noting that the challenge rests in mending the Net of Indra.

She began by defining “disconnection” with reference to a book entitled The Healing Connection by Jean Baker Miller and Irene Stiver. In that work, the term was defined as follows: “the psychological experience of rupture that occurs whenever a child or adult is prevented from participating in a mutually empathic and mutually empowering interaction.”

She elaborated by explaining that disconnections are inevitable in all kinds of relationships and that, furthermore, all relationships are in constant movement between connection and disconnection. People, therefore, need to learn the skills of timing and discernment that allow for positive movement and healing or repair when necessary. She also spoke of spiritual power, which helps to “create pathways toward reconnection or reconciliation, in the event of severe, chronic, or destructive disconnections that are harmful to the people and to the relationship.” In this context, she noted that the relational approach always considers individuals and the integrity of the relationship itself, “which has a unique existence to be tended to, understood, cared for, and empowered.”

Surrey explained that disconnections occur when a person is attacked, threatened, humiliated, or violated, or when there is repeated unresponsiveness to the expression of personal experience. With this understanding, she suggested that “disconnection can resolve or grow towards reconnection under conditions where both or all people can take some action to represent their experience, and others in the relationship are able to respond.” This interchange leads to a new and better connection. She referred to this process of reconnection as the “most creative challenge of life in relationships,” which encompasses “healing, liberation, social justice, and peace-building.”

As she addressed the challenge of reconnection, Surrey spoke of how all people carry the pain and despair of unresolved disconnection in their hearts and bodies. This pain is not only relevant to personal relationships, but to the deep and unresolved disconnections that exist within our society, local and global. Referring again to Miller’s work, Surrey stated that “disconnection leads to psychological or spiritual isolation” described by Miller as “anxious immobilization,” which is characterized by a sense of abandonment, entrapment, or of being unable to move. Miller’s term of “condemned isolation” goes one step further to indicate the state of hopelessness in which a person lives when disconnections go unhealed. In this state, a person feels deeply devalued and loses faith in relationships altogether.

Noting that we all fear isolation and, in this culture, view ourselves as the cause of it when it occurs, Surrey observed that “Much of contemporary American culture seems to rest on a foundation of intense threat and terror of disconnection and isolation, of being pushed or falling out of the web of care.” She illustrated this with examples such as the fear of speaking out about sexual abuse, the tyranny of adolescent popularity/rejection patterns, and rampant consumerism.

In the early 1990s, Surrey was engaged in a research project in which the central theme was the capacity and mobilization to work on disconnections. In that work, she asked people to describe their personal experiences of peace. She also asked peace activists, many being the women leaders of the Anti-nuclear Peace Movement of the 1980s, to describe what life experiences had led them to social activism. She summarized her findings by explaining that for nearly all the women interviewed, their “most cherished and life-giving experiences of peace” occurred in close relationships.

Her brief summary of findings pointed to “peace as a state of relationship—not the absence of conflict, violence, or disturbance—but rather a higher more intense state of authentic, empowering connection often achieved through relational risk, as in the face of great suffering or loss.” For the peace activists she interviewed, there was also a recurring sense of having been called to be a peacemaker in their families of origin. Thus family conflict had become the impetus to build a life of peace-building, usually with the support of a model (such as a grandmother or family friend).

Surrey also shared her own experience by talking about how the central challenge of her youth had been to grow away from her mother’s values and vision of femininity in response to the Women’s Movement. “Thus this enormous mother-daughter disconnection became an impetus for my work.”

She also spoke of how, for the past ten years, she has worked with her partner Stephen Bergman to bring groups of women and men from all backgrounds together in a process they call “gender dialogue.” To date, over 25,000 men and women have participated in this work. Referring to the fact that “old forms of gender relations are dying,” Surrey said, “I knew this was not an individual problem but a collective enterprise.” By creating a safe space for dialogue where men and women can address “prototypical disconnections,” find a language to describe their experience in relationships, and develop a shared intention to grow and transform disconnection, Surrey has found her life’s work. “This has been the deepest crucible of hope and faith in my life,” she said.

By working through Martin Buber’s idea of the I/Thou relationship, and making a commitment to stay present through disconnection, Surrey believes that dialogue shows “how far we can go in building a ‘We’.”

“The We of healthy connection does not subjugate, but is built on the active participation of all inclined toward a larger purpose,” she said. “The We is co-created by the participants, yet comes to have its own being. Participants are responsible to care for and attend to this We. And the We also shapes, cares for, energizes, and holds the participants.”

Open Dialogue and Exercise

A question about gender relations prompted Surrey to say that, in her practice, she had noticed that couples are dealing repeatedly with the same issues. “It is so striking to me that we need to move out of this therapy model into a more collective model of understanding this [gender disconnection] to be larger than who each of us individually is, and having the collective power of energy of men working together and women working together, and then coming together as men and women to form a new We with a strength and a power that no individual can ever hope for alone.”

Surrey then offered an exercise in which members of the audience were asked to gather in groups of two or three to share their own life experience of connection and disconnection. After the exercise, one woman stood and said that the process of doing the exercise with someone she had connected with at the Friday night session had led to a deeper connection that she believed would continue. Another person commented that she had experienced a rise in the level of energy in the room and an awareness of the power of connection as a result of the exercise. Others expressed appreciation to the speakers and the BRC for creating such a stimulating program, and one woman commented that Jan Surrey’s remarks, in particular, had made her think about how disconnected our country is at this moment. In response to this, Surrey suggested that we must “keep on keeping on, but with an appreciation of the level of disconnection and the culture of disconnection that we have inherited.”

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