Collective Intelligence

Open Group Practice: Eight Social Selves

In 2012, after retiring from my professional career, I was eager to participate in some of the practices I had read about that facilitated group practices aimed at realizing emergent capacities. My working hypothesis was that it could be possible for people to participate in ways that would catalyze new cognitive and conative capacities such as multi-perspectival awareness, sensory clarity, enhanced perception, collective in­sight, and cognitive flow. I believe these capacities are necessary to successfully address 21st century challenges.

I was surprised to find the existing practices significantly flawed. Foremost, the practices were based on old structures and schemas, not new ones. Although the worldviews were shaped by modern anthropocentric and theistic mindsets, and the discourse was laced with post-modern ideologies such as humanism, feminism, and collectivism, the practices themselves were fundamentally the same as traditional spiritual technologies and their outcomes limited to what can be expected of them,1 namely, moving people into participating with mythological symbols or its modern secular counterpart, the social object, and relying on cult values and peer pressure to secure group cohesion.

Secondly, the facilitators were vested in preordained outcomes, which they managed to reach by steering their own interpretations while excluding entire domains of inquiry. Holding a strong power position, they were able to raise anxiety levels by down-regulating arousal through implicit and explicit ‘rules of engagement’ that were far from participatory. Their assistants maintained pressure to comply and conform, and in most circles, this pressure was exacerbated by questions around developmental inadequacy. It is well known that individuals in states of high anxiety are primed to secede their autonomy over to group norms and groupthink. Because this process challenges the nervous system, it validates the symbolic content of the facilitator’s interpretation and further reifies the social object around which the group has formed.

I also noticed the gap between what the facilitators’ theory espoused and the practices they offered. Radical inclusion was espoused, but facilitators always primed the space with implicit rules of what was allowed and what was forbidden. Saying something like “Let’s just speak from our highest self,” for example, immediately told me that 90% of my own experience was to be excluded. Not-knowing was espoused, but facilitators always kept us tuned to the model and timed to its phases. Participation was espoused, but everything was done based on ritualized authority, kept in check by subtle cues from the facilitators about what was ‘in the right direction’ and what was not. New and experimental modes of being were espoused, but the practices were versions of traditional spiritual and modern secular (including common military) techniques for achieving group cohesion: ritualization of group membership, cognitive down-regulation of arousal, the systematic subversion of the autonomous selves, subjugation of the ego’s needs onto higher cult values, and transference of the ego’s projection onto social objects.

Given the right mood, people were happy to accept the improbability of the purported outcomes2 without feeling any need to examine the assumptions and intentions that went into the exercises. There was never any attempt to create space where participants could enter critical reflection around their own experiences. Rather, space was held as something ‘sacred’ and therefore limited to officially sanctioned activities. Many people found these practices to be valuable and nourishing, and seemed to find in them some kind of refuge from the chaotic world of everyday experience. Yet this sense of refuge from the world was elevated by facilitators who talked about the practices as being ‘more whole,’ or ‘more real,’ or ‘more valid’ than everyday ordinary experience. Facilitators seemed oblivious to the fact that such practices are heavily stylized experiments that bracket experience in order to reveal, study, and codify certain aspects of it.

Twenty people who know very little about each other enter a room. Twenty irreducibly diverse persons compose a dynamic system far from equilibrium. Instinctively, they begin to ‘sort things out.’ Strategies for belonging, relating, and sharing abound. Physical, emotional, narrative, conceptual feeds are offered. The group feeds back both positive and negative responses. Alliances are made and destroyed through implicit rules of engagement. Persons flock around common ground and flee from the strange, the unique, and the individual. They search for shared relevance but doubt their own relevancy. Instinctively then, persons lean toward the conventional, look for direction and leadership, want to be told what to do. When these cues are not given by a facilitator, the group begins to function as if they are lost in space—navigating a strange reality without meaning. They grasp for a story line, a narrative, a myth, a conceptual model, a game—any way to create something that can be known and thus shared. In the process, individuals offer flags of declaration, a story, a plot, a model, a purpose—one thing that codifies the whole—despite evidence to the contrary that each person is unique and everyone is disagreeing. Opinions become divided, suggestions are attacked, the profound experience of difference shows up and roars. By being released of the cues, rules, and pretense of maintaining the structural conditions of group-i-ness, persons biologically, psychologically, and culturally conditioned to act in accordance with a conception of what it is to be a social member fall into authentic chaos.

The habitual loops of social habit gradually become revealed as the routine, needs-based behaviors they are and have always been. Insights start to cascade around these revelations. Instead of fearing to be exposed, persons begin to expose their fears for what they are—deep evolutionary, developmental, and cultural structures that limit human experience by framing the field of infinite possibility into a limiting set of what everyone already knows. Absent the kinds of intervention that return people to a known reality, the system magnifies these dynamics, and eventually, out of the chaos of searching for terra firma and finding none, a new reality begins to be born. Persons begin to differentiate, to enter a phase of refined discernment and bold curiosity for what is arising completely out of the blue. Persons learn to navigate the unknown like astronauts acclimating to weightlessness.

With adequate facilitation persons enter ‘search space’ through an attitude of ‘still hunting.’ Bold curiosity rides on energy waves that rise and perish, build momentum toward an unknown strange attractor. Ideas and insights, creative imaginaries, apperception of new possibilities all dance in an adaptive theatre, mining the possibility field for coherence across multiple states of creative emergence. People discover possibilities that were never thought possible before.

What Is Possible?

Over a 3-year period I hosted a dozen group retreats at Alderlore Insight Center. We aimed for full transparency and full participation, radical inclusivity of all perspectives, while sensing for novel perspectives that might arise as participation became more authentic to our actual lived experience and engagement moved toward deeper levels of evaluative discourse. As the ‘host of Alderlore,’ I was committed to the attitude captured in Van Morrison’s lyric “No guru, no method, no teacher.” What I learned from these initial retreats is that we do not yet know how to be with freedom, that when all the structures are removed, we continue to push back against them and in the process recompose them in different ways. I learned that we do not yet know how to be with our own uniqueness, which is the same as being with the infinite diversity of the human experience, expressed by the others, because, when you remove the rituals, the reified concepts, the social objects and peer cult values, and remove the ‘person at the top responsible for making it all work,’ then the process quickly falls into its authentic state of chaos. Meaning-making techniques stop making sense, and sense-making techniques no longer have any meaning. It was clear to me that this edge, mostly experienced at the time as existential despair, is also the horizon of what is possible.

I started to reason that what appeared to be evidence of ‘failure’ might in fact be the key to a more advanced understanding of who we actually are becoming as people and what gets in the way of authentic participation. ‘Failure,’ I realized, was predicated on the illusion that groups could be thought of as some kind of closed system, some ‘thing’ that demonstrated collective wholeness, some ‘thing’ that could supervene on the autonomous agency of the individual and ‘heal’ our individual predicaments. Our early retreats ‘failed’ because we did not prime the intentional states of people with any kind of social object that provided a screen on which people could project a collectively shared ‘group identity,’ or give them an authority figure to stabilize their anxiety. Rather, people had to endure liminal realities where old identities were shed, as authentic participation informed new identities and new ways of making sense, through the complex processes of human interaction.

Looking at the evolutionary anthropology of our species, we see that we have always been ‘glued together’ in groups by participating with ritual, symbol, cult values, and social objects. We have only recently begun to think about actually entering into participation with each other. We have only recently begun to make the distinctions that are necessary to step out of the spell of mythology and symbolism, and engage the messy, lively, and multi-valent participation of individuals. We have only recently begun to question the adequacy of thinking of the collective as a system that can be steered, manipulated, engineered in instrumental ways—modified or intentionally moved up the developmental ladder—imagining instead a future that emerges through novel acts of spontaneity and surprise.

Table 1


Early Breakthroughs

Early on it was clear that beneath all the chaos of open group practice, there was a pattern of change. The notion of group process going through dynamic phases had already been documented in different ways. However, the phases were previously explained in terms of systems and cybernetics, rather than pointing out the actual lived experience and observed behavior of actual participants. This created an unfortunate situation where facilitators are tracking what phase the group is in, rather than the identities and behaviors that individuals are enacting. Therefore, rather than working with what is—with what is actually happening in the practice—facilitators are focused on the model and employ methodologies that are designed to enact the model.

We also learned that the way through was in the direction toward heightened anxiety. This is counterintuitive because anxiety actually decreases cognitive capacity and comes with the taste of risk. Through phenomenological inquiry, we learned to feel how anxiety arises as the result of cognitively down-regulating the arousal energies in our bodies. According to Jaak Panksepp,3 there are seven arousal energies in all mammals—FEAR, CARE, ANGER, PANIC/GRIEF, LUST, PLAY, SEEKING. Understanding the neuro-affective processes underneath the anxiety enables us to move through anxiety toward a more authentic expression of our primary affect-laden intentional-motivational states. This is a key feature of ‘no-method’ facilitation of open group process. It allows the anxiety to be released, without diminishing the energy required to push through conditioned habits, into emergent ways of being. We realized that all cultural conditioning was predicated on the down-regulation of natural affective arousal processes in human relating, that the mechanisms of down-regulation were internalized early in our lives and continued to operate even when outside intervention was removed.

We might say that in open group practice, we are basically leveraging 7,000 years of cultural conditioning with 200,000 years of mammalian evolution. When faced with novel encounters, people automatically rely on culturally conditioned standards and habits of interactions that are stable and shallow, and therefore safe from emotional upheaval that threatens the individual when immersed in group processes. However, human beings are also bio-psychologically wired with primary affective drives that function as transformational impulses. Open process requires sophisticated integration of the affective impulses that arise within because only by increasing one’s capacity to feel can we shift affect-laden energies from psycho-neural pathways of avoidance to open, exploratory ones and transmute resistance to effect intense psycho-neurodynamics to the transformational power that is derived from such intensely activated affective states.

In open group practice, we intentionally seek to activate SEEKING energies that drive intentional states of ‘active exploration’ to find resources, to make new discoveries, and to serve as a foundation for all our aspirations. The basic experience of SEEKING is captured in the phrase still hunting, which describes the appetitive, goal-directed ways of active exploration that is intuitively directed toward horizons of adventure-promising rewards, ordinary as well as sublime.

The Eight Social Selves

Through co-operative inquiry, observation, and collective reflection, we began to track patterns of social behavior that seemed to follow a typology. This eventually led to the naming of eight ‘indigenous social selves’ that masquerade around as human beings in conventionally structured environments. The eight social selves are derived from alternative coping mechanisms at three levels of being: an inner core primary psychological schema, an outer social processing temperament, and an interpretive ideology.

The inner core schema represents early childhood coping strategies. As children, energy arises spontaneously and manifests outwardly. Ideally, this energy is received and directed toward a posture or expression that is meaning-filled and pleasurable for the child. Most adults, however, constrain that energy toward outcomes they prefer or outcomes they have been socially conditioned to repeat. This is a denial of the creative novelty of the life force. Therefore, the child adopts a coping strategy—either of seeking power or seeking approval.

The second sheath of the social self is the social processing temperament. In most social situations, we are limited to speech acts to process the energy that builds inside. In group practice, some people process their raw affective energy as emotional-narrative speech acts, while others process it through cognitive-conceptual speech acts.

Thirdly, we share a world of opinions around individual and collective power. Some people are ideologically biased toward individualism while others are ideologically biased toward collectivism. When all the combinations are included, we have eight native social selves.4

Table 1 gives us a convenient way to understand how individuals process energy and navigate anxiety in open group dynamics. The table helps us see that ‘progress in the right direction’ is never ‘more like me’ because ‘more like me’ means just another reduction of human possibility into the conditioned structure of the social self.

The table helps us understand that while it might feel safer and more acceptable for behaviors to stay in the social mode, the behaviors associated with arousal states are actually ‘in the right direction’ opening toward a fuller and more authentic participation. Lacking this insight, facilitators will tend to keep ‘sharers’ sharing rather than debating and ‘connectors’ connecting rather than questioning. I invite the reader to read across the table of behaviors at each phase of practice. Feel how your experience would shift from a situation where people are ranking, sharing, connecting, and enacting belonging behaviors, to a phase where people are claiming territory, debating, questioning, and dissociating. Welcome to the groan zone. As a facilitator, what would you do?

On the other side of the groan zone, there is authentic chaos, which is a release phase. If we look at this from a phenomenological perspective, we see that people are no longer employing what I call ‘the gatekeeper self’—that egoic structure that lets some of one’s internal experience to enter shared space while keeping aspects of one’s lived experience privately hidden. Sense-making is still elusive, but the unknown and ambiguous feels pleasurable and freeing.

The next phase of open practice I call ‘opening phase,’ where individuals enter into different modes of embodied perceptual being. For the first time, the senses come online and people experience simple, sensory clarity. We are free to act, but action at this phase is often tentative because people are wary of falling into old patterns. Therefore, there is generally a period of quiescence as people absorb themselves in the moment, passively experiencing their unique perceptual acuity: seeing, sensing, allowing, and feeling. In mature phases of collective participatory practice, perceptual acumen becomes active and creative, as people spontaneously engage in theory-building, active imagining, seeking, and experiencing. Here we realize the kind of collective participation that I had originally imagined was possible. I invite you to imagine, too! Imagine a world where people operating at these levels come together to work on big challenges and big ideas.


How can open participatory practices improve our lives today? Consider civic engagement: the Occupy Movement is just one example of a growing worldwide demand for participatory versus representational democracy. Our organizations are beginning to see how opening participation is key to creating agile, responsive, and innovative work and places where people can flourish. In the past, civic engagement has primarily leveraged human needs for connection, sharing, and belonging, while in our workplaces, we have primarily adopted ranking and debating behaviors. These behaviors are re-active, not pro-active, functional coping mechanisms, not creative and aspirational activities, and therefore they are inadequate to the 21st century imagination-fostering values such as thrivability and flourishing. Going forward, we must reinvent civic engagement and organizational life as full participation in emergent capacities, such as collective insight, sensory clarity, and cognitive flow in teams. Yet to do this, we must move beyond merely modeling group process as closed cybernetic systems, and instead, immerse ourselves in the actual lived experience of open participation. These experiences will be complex and chaotic, open and responsive, and therefore not reproducible by adherence to fixed rules of engagement. Moreover, at all times we must commit to a realist position and avoid getting lost in the upper echelons of fantasy. We must rely instead on a commitment to participatory principles such as theory-practice consistency, openness, radical inclusion, trust in the human condition, and its innate potentials for collective action in order to initiate ‘model-free’ practices that can catalyze emergent capacities.


[expand title=”Show Endnotes” swaptitle=”Close Endnotes”]
1 Many of these practices incorporated outright meditative practices such as TM and guided meditative practices such as ‘causal state meditation.’

2 Outcomes such as the presence of a ‘circle being,’ the manifestation of a higher conscious entity that supervened on individual consciousness, the presence of a kind of ‘supersubject,’ access to information ‘from the future,’ ‘presencing the future,’ ‘spontaneous collective enlightenment,’ and the like were taken literally.

3 W.H. Norton. 2012,The Archaeology of Mind.

4 We have been easily testing people’s default social self with a simple 3-part questionnaire. Most people immediately recognize their own (and others’) behavioral patterns.