Excerpt | Open Group Practice: Eight Social Selves

by Bonnitta Roy, coming in Kosmos Journal, Fall | Winter 2016

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 outcomes 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.

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