I am glad that this conversation is continuing. Here is a contribution of my reflections on my experience of our group call, and of this thread.
As an experienced facilitator, I know how important it is to create an environment in which people feel safe and comfortable in which to show up, or else the desired depth of discussion will likely not be reached. Particularly in a setting where the ultimate goal was ultimate depth–that is, sensing and speaking to only what was “commonly sensed in the group” and relinquishing any awareness of individual sensation or thoughts–to ensure participants felt safe to “go deep” would seem to be paramount to this method. It’s quite straightforward: people in a group of friends OR strangers don’t tend to open, to wax vulnerable, to wax sensitive, unless they feel received and accepted unconditionally. It’s also quite straightforward that: when someone feels threatened, their survival responses wax, and preservation of the beast (activation of the ego) tends to result, which means the fixation on the individual self to the potential exclusion of sensitivity to others.
I sensed early on in the meeting that there were particular things the facilitator wanted to hear. Out of the gate, when a facilitator seems to be attached to specific outcomes of what is supposedly an open, collective, evolving, and discursive process, I feel “on guard.” As we proceeded, it seemed that the process was not to include and weave together the differentiated voicings of a shared perspective, but to shear away, slice by slice, what comments were “not it” until there was little left to say. I am sure I don’t fully understand the method–it did seem like the approach, and the intended outcomes, were left willfully vague–so take my following comments with however many grains of salt you desire.
I am always unwilling to say things that are untrue for me, especially when I am asked explicitly to say things that I sense and feel. Therefore, I focused my attention on saying things that were true for me, but I chose to style them in a way that did not immediately mirror the facilitator, i.e., supply the facilitator with precisely what I supposed he wanted to hear. I take responsibility for this, insofar as I “held myself apart” and in an “assessing” mode–instead of, perhaps, automatically dropping into the undifferentiated pool of groupthink. I hoped this approach on my part would open up access to greater breadth/depth–but it seemed to have the opposite effect. It seemed that my comments were, increasingly, reacted to.
The facilitator seemed to be inviting us to open up a “portal”–that is, to break out of our day-to-day egoic experiences and break through into annata, or Void, or universal self, etc. in a communal framework. A kind of group trance-like state was sought–albeit in a secural, rigidly structured way. I was concerned, though, by how little ritual or protection was offered surrounding the space. The only segue that I could identify between regular conversation and this “process” was the facilitator asking us if we had ever had a transcendental experience–we went around the circle and stated our experience. Then, it just began.
Instead of a “yes, and” facilitation style, which would have encouraged me to continue trying (and failing) to offer statements that “got at” a commonly sensed experience, the facilitator used a “well, but” approach. When a statement was offered, it was often responded to directly by the facilitator with a critique: along the lines of “so, it’s common for people to feel or say something like that, but it isn’t quite right.” The facilitator would then speak for many minutes at a time in intellectual explanation of the method, stressing the benefits of its outcomes, etc. During these periods, I looked for the “spirit” riding the words–i.e., is this person fully present, is he tapped in to that broader-Self we are aiming to access right now, and is speaking from a place of presence? But I found a person attached to their particular way of viewing and experiencing things. Which is not bad in and of itself. However, all of these subtly sensed things combined to contribute to my distrust.
What further actuated a “close-off/shut down” response in me was that when I did speak, the words I said were, early and often, misunderstood. And instead of asking for clarification, what proceeded was a long unpacking of things not relevant to what I had meant, but to what the facilitator heard. The lack of inquiry into what others meant when they said something was one of these several minor red flags that added up to my feeling increasingly hyper-aware and scrutinized as to what I was saying. Out of desperation, I consciously tried different tactics for what and how I communicated. But little that I said was accepted.
There’s a vicious epistemological issue at the root of this: how could you know if “that one” is indeed sensing a “commonly sensed consciousness” if the language that one chooses to put to it, or their tone, or their facial expressions, etc. is not in conformity with what you are looking for? When one shuts out something as “off track” or “divergent”–through a rapid mental labeling process–how does that actually close us off to sensing what is there?
This human process of what an individual unconsciously selects as salient and relevant to their present moment is crucial here and must be examined. I didn’t feel the interpersonal space, under Sperry’s facilitation, was oriented toward being inclusive of what was said–and if what I’m saying isn’t valid, isn’t worthy of inclusion, then what is the point of my involvement? My comments were not intended to dismay or derail any other participant. I may have wanted to deepen the space by surfacing subtle aspects I was sensing–then again, given my extensive facilitation and community organizing background, I may have been the individual most tolerant of difference/divergence on the whole, most willing to be calm and present in and through it as a result of my training.
I held back from walking through the door of groupmind or groupthink (which is also a very real form of collective trance) because I was unable to trust and feel safe in this setting. That feeling may have spread throughout the collective–in which case, perhaps a commonly sensed reality was attained.
If I had discerned what you wanted to hear, and had been willing to acquiesce and provide you with it, setting aside what I actually sensed–would that have amounted to a successful session (or simply, a session that “went deeper”?) Whether your response is “yes” or “no,” I maintain: How do you know?
Speaking from my own experience: I tend to assess whether something is true by the absence of dissonance and the building of a sense of jubiliant spontaneous untroubled rapport. (Perhaps this is what you were eager to find amongst us?) If so, then: subtly–how is there not an element of self-selecting into this process based on whether it does or does not resonate, and how does that shape the outcomes? In other words: how does who is there affect whether a sense of moving as one body can be attained?
What, after all, was the aim of accessing universal consciousness? What was the aim of holding the session we did? Each party seemed to have distinct thoughts–and questions–as to this. There was one little possible hint that slipped into the conversation by the facilitator that stood out to me: something along the lines of “accessing profound bliss that is always available to us.” Sperry, I know directly the bliss of which you speak, and I wouldn’t seek to deny it to anyone.
But the bliss is not the point. (Or so says the Buddhist. Which brings me to my final comment:)
I do not doubt, in the slightest, that this method works. That people use it, that people soften through it, that people benefit from it. I would, however, dispute that this a universal method, accessible equally by all, regardless of cultural background/framework. I hypothesize that this method is especially fruitful for those individuals who are white, who are older, who have an academic background or who are otherwise well-educated, who are spiritual but areligious or who may feel alienated from their cultural or traditional roots–largely, people who feel “groundless” or who have not found a ground (besides that of their own consciousness) on which they could rest and trust. For those people, a straightforward, rigorous path into collective trance–unaccompanied by obscure rituals or symbology–may be the most refreshing thing they’ve ever felt, and the bliss incumbent to finding that they are beyond the “little self” could have transformational effects on their lives. (If there is empirical data on the users/subscribers of this method, I would be curious to know whether my hypothesis holds up.)
However, other colors/cultures of people have equally direct paths to that place, that may only seem mystical to folks who cannot inhabit/access the relevant contexts. I would venture that people who have fought and died to retain their cultural identities and heritages–i.e., their pathways to the sacred–against the tide of assimilation and erasure by imperialist, “universalizing” forces would react vigorously to being instructed to relinquish their personal reference points… much less goaded to talk about that which must not be talked about at all (or without proper protections/settings in place) according to many cultures.
The destination is universal–by definition (it’s Void). I’d argue, however, that the method is not universally suited, and thus not everybody will have equal success. These are all tools, after all, and not the destination.
Now–this method having been developed over 30 years, I would be flabbergasted if my critiques were novel or original in any way. Thus, I’d love to hear your response or be pointed to materials that respond to these critiques.
I hope you can hear in everything I shared that I am not saying anything is wrong about this method. I am saying that there may be barriers to accessing its fruits. And to not acknowledge and seek to refine those sticking points is to deny some people access to it. And perhaps, going back to how the unconscious mind selects phenomena for salience and relevance–that is also perfectly OK.