I first encountered groupwork almost by mistake, I signed up for the Hoffman process at a difficult point in my life, more for the promise of getting through several years of therapy in just a week than the prospect of working on my ‘stuff’ with other people.
But since then I’ve done probably over ten group processes, over weekends, some five days and the occasional week long process. In that time I’ve experienced good, the bad and pretty ugly.
It can create some of the most powerful breakthrough experiences of personal revelation, inner connection and emotional release, but like anything that works with group dynamics, it’s only as good as the people involved, and in particular, the skill of the facilitators.
Firstly, what is groupwork and why do we need it? Mainly because any process of self-development has to work with embodying awareness in the present moment, in the body. The intellect can help, but it’s not an intellectual process.
“The problem is that you can’t read yourself to an experience, so if I gave you a book, that had wonderful concepts in it – that awakened your mind – it would only be that, a mind awakening, and this work is all about embodiment, about bringing you into the present in an emotional, energetic, physical level.
Because it’s dealing with that, it’s much much more powerful to do this work with other people.
Often what holds us back is the past – our mind loves to go to what happened yesterday – or it goes into the future of what might happen. So the mind does not live in the now – because of that we often can’t access the joy of this present moment. In order to bring ourselves into joy now – one of the best ways to do that is through group.
Have you noticed that the stuff that has happened in the past – that has been either hurtful or painful, where there has been betrayal perhaps, rejection or failure, hurt in whatever form – we’ve all had it to varying degrees. That all happened with other people. the trauma is never created from within ourselves. The trauma in our life, or the disconnections or the pains are always in relationship to others. Others were involved in our disconnection, and others therefore are a wonderful ingredient to our reconnection.”
The main aim of all self-development processes is to work with the body and soul’s natural intelligence to try to come towards a connection with an inner presence, an experience of the sacred. My experience is that we all have a deep bodily memory of a connection to it, feel the pain of separation on some level, and want to get back to it.
Turiya Hanover is one of the world’s most experienced groupwork facilitators and co-creator of the Path of Love process, “The longing in itself is the divine calling for you. Without this longing we would not move at all. Often we try to fill this longing by outer values. Many people are vying to become successful or famous and are hoping outer achievements will create full meaning for their lives and fill that inner hole – that feeling of emptiness. But this inner hole is just the longing wanting to call us inside.
We long for that divine taste inside of us. We long for that fire of love, that passionate intimacy with life, with love and ourselves. This is a known but oft- forgotten place inside ourselves where we are not held back by nitty-gritty ego stuff, righteousness and pride – a place that is beyond all of that.”
The paradox is that by focusing on that longing for divine connection, what actually comes up for us is everything that is keeping us from embodying it. All our judgements, beliefs and negative emotional patterns come up.
Using the psychologist Jung’s model of the personal shadow, meaning the parts of ourselves we repress or deny, it’s clear that these spaces where we have shut down or disconnected are very difficult for us to see on our own.
The classic model for self-realisation in spiritual communities is to see a fundamental difference between the ego or limited personality, and the essence of a person. In this model, we undergo experiences and processes to identify and heal the wounds of our conditioning and ego defences in order to get to the essence of who we really are.
Whether or not that’s a complete picture, it’s a very useful model to work with and seems very simple. The difficulty comes with seeing our ego patterns in the first place, because the ego itself is very good as hiding, justifying and blaming. It’s almost impossible to see oneself clearly. A good facilitator will have worked through enough of their own ‘stuff’ to be clear enough to see you clearly. They will then be able to work with you to enable you to see yourself. Therefore the limiting factor in any group process is the level of awareness of the group facilitator.
This is where the concept of the ‘guru’ came in in the classic spiritual model. A guru was someone supposedly enlightened enough to see all your ego defence patterns for what they were, and to see your essential oneness behind them. By ‘devoting’ yourself to the guru you were effectively saying, “I accept that you know me better than I know myself and I trust you to take me where I need to go”. It goes without saying that many of these individuals proved themselves unworthy of that trust.
The basic ‘ground rules’ of this kind of group work are open to misuse, especially when the facilitator is less personally advanced themselves. Because when you accept that any reaction you have is as much your issue as the other person’s they can always ‘make you wrong’. Any negative reaction a participant has to the group, or the group leader, can be turned into the participant’s issue. Cultish group dynamics can easily develop once there is no way of criticising people at the top of organisations.
A self-declared ‘Enlightened Guru’ called Andrew Cohen continued for decades in this way, abusing and mistreating others while blaming all negative reactions on others. He created a huge organisation called EnlightenNext while even his own (Jewish) mother compared him to Hitler. Only in the summer of 2013 when the organisation was crumbling did he stop, apologise and agree to get help.
The best modern facilitators have abandoned the Guru model and work with the individual’s own inner resources, skilfully helping them to work through whatever is coming up in that moment.
They are also self-aware enough not to set themselves up as some kind of infallible ‘Guru’ figure. One of my favourite facilitators, a hugely experienced teacher called Rafia jokes in his groups about his own narcissistic wounds and how he solved them by becoming a group leader. Generally, if the group leader can’t joke about themselves, run a mile.
The best models of self development I’ve seen work with three key processes or concepts.
Firstly some form of exposure, sharing, allowing vulnerability. Basically sharing ones deep truths, stuckness or shame in a supportive, non-judgemental space. The facilitator is key here in helping you get in touch with your body, feel what is happening in the present moment, and where you want to heal.
Secondly some form of self-expression or cathartic release. The negative patterns are generally stored as emotional patterns in the body and mind. Unexpressed emotions need to be expressed and the body needs to shed the emotional charge. The scientific support for this comes from the concept of neuroplasticity, that we can effectively ‘rewire’ our emotional circuitry. Again, this has to happen in an intelligent way with a good facilitator, not everyone needs to work in the same way, as Kare
Landfald, the founder of Zen Coaching said: “With two different people, one person may need to express the anger, and the other person needs to get out of the anger. It’s like an old habit that they always use. But for others it’s a feeling they have never expressed – so it’s very different needs for each person.”
Thirdly a sense of spiritual connection on the other side of the emotional release. A trust in the universe. It’s an unfashionable concept, but the tradition of prayer used to fulfil that role for us in society. When we lost that and tried to do it all ourselves, we lost a basic trust and connection with something bigger.
Turiya Hanover takes it up: “Once we feel that deep longing within us like a cry in the heart, we can reach out again to existence and simply ask for help. Prayer here is used as a way to open up to something bigger,.
Once we have exposed all our old places of holding, isolation and withdrawal, we experience openness, a place of humbleness and yielding. All the mystics and many poets describe this state, a surrender to a higher force, surrender to the One.”
Crazy Wisdom School will be looking for the best groupwork facilitators and offering their work in the coming months and years, sign up top right with your email address if you want to be kept up to date with our classes and workshops.