The Power of the Small Group
A small group (let us say from three to eight people) can be a contained world where we give permission (to ourselves and to each other) to allow something more of our collective potential to emerge, than we are used to. This is not a forcing-ground for change, but something more like a play space where the possibilities of change can be prepared.
Giving up the use of force
We shall aim to give up the use of force as the usual currency for interaction. This is more far-reaching than the words imply, because I mean the discouragement of all manipulative and seductive force, and including bullying of varying degrees of subtlety.
Define "force", please
There is no straightforward definition of what counts as coercive force, and it is very unlikely that we will agree amongst ourselves at the outset, about what counts as force and what does not. So this is a creative exercise in how we can negotiate amongst ourselves. We shall be searching for some mutual understanding and recognition of where we stand in practice - trying to keep track of who actually feels manipulated or constrained, and how. We cannot, however, ban the use of force; this is an outright self- contradiction since it implies the use of force.
Giving up the use of force means, in effect, that we are asking for room to be made for all
the voices, likewise all the impulses and habits, of each of the group members. And to the extent that each member has previously developed habits of self-suppression, then each person is being asked make room for more of themselves
than they may be used to living with.
A question of judgment
Warning: this is a prescription for conflict
The formula is to try to accept everything that comes up, about everybody in the room. Paradoxically, it may cause us to feel actively non-accepting
of one another. The commitment to try
to accept will often bring about conflict - both amongst the members of the group, and in the hearts and minds of some of the individuals. This is because each of us has a spontaneous stream of evaluating impulses: of liking or disliking, positive or negative - arising within us. These impulses arise in response to our own as well as to other people's utterances. (Our responses can also be thought of as "judgments" but the use of this word easily leads to misunderstanding.)
Trying to be nice
Many of us think that it isn't nice to have negative reactions to each other, but there is no way around this: the feeling that "it isn't nice" is already a negative reaction to our own reaction! If we do not wish to chase ourselves in ever-diminishing circles, we may as well accept that our positive and negative reactions are probably already happening; so let us accept them, and find out how we can limit the damage.
True and false selves
I start from the position that every impulse is as much an expression of my real self, as everything else I utter or enact in the world. (Some of us believe that there are whole aspects of ourselves which are "false". My point is that these aspects must be real in some sense for them to be able to make enough impact, for me to want to characterise them as "not really me".)
Accepting all of myself
So I am saying: let us accept all
of our impulses for the time being, and sort them out as we go along. (We do not need to pre-judge them as "true" or "false" expressions of ourself - though the feeling
that "this isn't really me" must surely have some relevance.) I have already suggested that this formula of acceptance is likely to lead to a degree of conflict. It may also call for an intense, demanding and possibly miraculous work of reconciliation.
Here is another way to think about this work. It starts from the belief that the best way to appreciate the mystery, sweetness and tragedy of life is to aim at being fully engaged (through thought, feeling, action and imagination) with the reality that is unfolding.
This is a high octane version of "emotional intelligence" - tapping in to the secret wisdom that offers itself to us when we give the most delicate attention to the play of emotion and situation. It is an appreciation of the multiple layers and dimensions of human reality which goes far beyond the familiar division between "head" and "heart". It is an intimate harmony of operation which includes all those aspects I mentioned: thought, feeling, action and imagination. There is also a full complement of sensibilities - not predefined in words - which are ready to come into play if we can find the way to let them in.
Satisfaction not guaranteed
This is what our group work is in search of; and we cannot predict any degree of success - the only thing to do is to try it out. Certainly there is a paradox: here is a way of working together that may prove to be conflict-ridden, frustrating, confusing and even painful - but we shall enter it with the hope of generating a real alchemy between us, from which we can emerge transformed and renewed.
on the use of the word "judgment"
I actually see all these reactions as, effectively, judgments - a continuous series of judgments which each of us makes in response to everything that comes into our orbit. However, if we use the word "judgment" like this it seems to bring us into conflict with various programmes of self-development and spiritual discipline (including many interpretations of Buddhism and Christianity) which ask us "not to judge".
Subtle moments of judgment
To bring the conflict into perspective and perhaps begin to resolve it, we need to distinguish between all these subtle judgments on the wing, which I am referring to, and the kind of judgment we all pray will not be brought down on our own heads. This, I think, is where somebody stands in judgment upon our worth as a human being (or perhaps as an accepted member of the community).
Being condemned by "the authorities"
It is an extreme kind of judgment, and one which seems to claim some higher authority than we normally stand within, in our everyday relationships. Perhaps the word "condemnation" fits this situation better. Anyway, I take it that this is the kind of judgment which the gospel refers to in the memorable phrase: "Judge not, lest you be judged"
. Needless to say, I do not think that this kind of judgment is flashing past us at the rate of three per second, whereas I think that is the approximate rate of the spontaneous subtle judgments (also called reactions, evaluations or responses) which I have been trying to talk about.
An alternative reading of the biblical phrase, is that in whatsoever ways we may choose to judge others, by that very act we become subject to the same judgment upon ourselves, if it should happen to apply to us.
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© all content: copyright reserved, Michael Roth, January 2004