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What and How Can a Support Group Support?
Reflections and Stuff
Red Thomas

The following two questions chosen by the learning community support group for our discussion helped me to break-through a pesky writing block that has plagued me for weeks:

1. What are the ingredients of extraordinary structures brought into creation in possibly non-supportive environments?

2. How do we bring the heart and the intellect together in the academic world? In the workplace? In politics? (Logos and Eros in our culture?)

For many years I've sought answers to these important questions (and a few more that I may get to later.) It felt good to me to be once more in the company of fellow seekers, which reminds me of some person's quip - "I love the company of those who seek the truth, but Lord deliver me from those who think they've found it." I'll try to keep this in mind as I tread the tightrope between dogmatism and false modesty, while attempting to identify and share with you some of the experiences and resulting guidelines that have been of most use to me over the years.
First, I've been impressed for many years with how certain types of group settings can enable people to achieve states of being that are not common in our every-day lives. Years ago while participating in Sonoma State's famous conference on existential psychology in the summer of 1962 I was particularly struck by how many people in what we called "basic encounter groups" seemed to resemble what Carl Rogers called "fully functioning persons" and Abraham Maslow labeled "self-actualizing people." This involved, among other things, enhanced feelings of self-confidence, creativity, access to and acceptance of previously unknown or repressed aspects of self, authenticity, congruence,ie , ability to relate non-defensively, often resulting in expanded awareness and openness to experience that manifested in deep feelings of acceptance and love of both self and others. Under such conditions we experienced quite vividly what it felt like to be in tune with each moment, trusting the total organism (head and heart) to make the most appropriate decision at any given point in time. Once having experienced such a state of being it's difficult to settle for less.
Soon after the conference mentioned above I wrote a paper, subsequently published in the then new Journal of Humanistic Psychology, entitled "Self Actualization Through the Group Experience"(4). In it I discussed what for me were a couple of key points. The first was that it seemed helpful to view the concepts of fully- functioning and self-actualizing persons as described by Rogers and Maslow as states of being, available under certain specified conditions to many people in varying degrees rather than to "special" individuals only. This for me was both a subtle but important distinction, mainly, I feel, because it tends to lend a sense of hope to us "common folk" that there just might be more to us than we thought. The second point, which I also found most encouraging, was the fact that we had within our ken some of the ways of how to create the kinds of settings conducive to these states of being.

It was exciting in those days to know that we could experience being more truly human in specially designed human relations "laboratories." (That sounds pretty sterile and antiseptic, I know.) Critics challenged us with remarks such as, "Well, maybe you can get such results in the laboratory, but what about the real world? You're dealing for the most part with ideal conditions in which people are not having to confront the realities of every-day life, such as family, job, school, competition for survival, etc." I have to admit the critics have a point. So-called every-day life does confront us with myriad obstacles and distractions that often prevent getting in touch with deeper and more fulfilling states of being. It's all too easy in our daily lives to get locked into roles that mask and deny expression to a more authentic self.

The laboratory, however antiseptic and sterile, provides us with a helpful analogy. Perhaps there are "laws" of human behavior as there are "laws" in physics. If, for instance, I tell you that a ten-pound weight and a feather will fall at the same rate of speed and neglect to specify under what conditions,(in this case, in a vacuum chamber) you can easily prove me the fool by dropping them at the same instant from a few feet off the ground in a windstorm. I like to feel, however, that working with people over the years in the "vacuum chambers" we called "human relations laboratories" has given us an understanding of some basic principles regarding human behavior.
Let me develop this a bit further. Back in the very early days at Sonoma State our "laboratories" were the then burgeoning "basic encounter groups," These were cultural islands in that they usually took place in settings isolated for the most part from the typical distractions of everyday life. This design provided maximum freedom in relatively unstructured, agendaless groups for participants to focus on whatever they deemed most important. In such settings we found that in most cases if you trusted individuals and the group to seek and find what they needed most without leader interference that they were able to do so. And, as mentioned above ,many people in such settings experienced levels of functioning and states of being that were in striking contrast to the ordinary. We,the faculty of the new psychology department, then applied much of what we derived from these off-campus "laboratories" to our "real world" that happened to be academia.

I have my own way of dealing with this psuedo-question of "Just what is the real world?" Everything you or I experience is ,in some sense, real. Also,it seems to me that within certain limits each of us is a co-creator of our reality. And, to a certain extent we can choose the arenas in which we play our games of life. Maybe it's more a matter of asking ourselves and each other such questions as: "What is worthy of our time and energy? What makes us come alive? What is the reigning love in each of our lives? How can we learn to live in harmony with ourselves, each other, and the universe? And, how can we become more effective co-creators in the dance of life? (Consider these as openers, if you will, and design your own list.)

A Brief History

In the early 1960s we established a psychology department whose intent was to place the person at the center of a curriculum that would be devoted to the questions most relevant to human existence. This was viewed as radical, academically heretical, and unrealistic by many of our colleagues. However, we were fortunate in being a very small department in a brand new institution with a president and administration who encouraged and supported experimentation.
We were soon deluged with far more students that we could comfortably handle as word got around that something special was happening at this new college in the middle of a hayfield. The opportunity to deal with vital human concerns in an atmosphere of freedom within an academic institution appealed to multitudes of people of all ages.

We were careful to hire new faculty who were both competent in their subject matter areas and, most important, student-centered in their approach. In 1966 we established a Masters degree program in humanistic psychology, the first of its kind, insofar as I know. In fall semester 1970 the School of Expressive Arts, initiated by Mac McCreary, opened its doors with an interdisciplinary faculty of six and a student body of approximately 80 upper division students. (our eventual enrollment with the same number of faculty topped out at about 140 students) Since details about this program are covered elsewhere (2),(5), I won't elaborate at this point other than to say that it was the most radical experiment in freedom in an academic setting I had ever experienced. What I'd like to be able to do is to continually apply some of what we learned then to the present.
When Expressive Arts was phased out in 1984 and after a year of self-searching, I decided to take on what I considered to be a difficult challenge and teach at Sonoma State, several sections of a required general education upper division course, "Written and Oral Analysis." I sweated a lot in this process but soon found my way by admitting to the students at the outset that I had broken my vow made several years previously never again to teach a required course. I also let them know that I was well aware that many of them were there only because they had to be. I reminded them, "We have at least a couple of choices, we can see how to get through the course with the least amount of effort or instead, each of us might seriously consider a couple of questions: (1) how can I make this course work for me? and (2) what makes me come alive?" I informed them that the guts of the course as far as I was concerned would involve the development of these questions for each individual and finding the means of expressing both orally and in writing what was or wasn't happening for them in this process . I also promised to do for myself what I was asking them to do. One of the most valuable learnings for me in this process was the importance of hanging tough on the requirement of spending a fair measure of time (six hours a week) on whatever project they chose and sharing their experiences of their personal quest with the group both informally and via oral and written assignments. Details of this experiment can be found in the Person-Centered Review article (3)

I found the seven years spent teaching this three-unit required general education course to be far more exciting and personally rewarding than I had ever dared to anticipate. A surprising number of students were able to identify and pursue vital personal interests in depth. Many claimed that they had never before had the opportunity to do this in school. (This never ceases to amaze me!) Even more amazing to me was the significance of the changes in the lives of many of those who took seriously this apparently simple challenge to "follow your bliss, pay attention to your experience and find the ways of expressing and sharing it with others." We who had been involved with The School of Expressive Arts knew that this simple formula worked within a setting which involved the almost full-time attention of students and faculty over at least a two-year time period (48 upper division units), but I was both surprised and gratified by how much could happen within the confines of a three-unit required course.

In the late 1980s another form of person-centered education entered the scene in the shape of the learning community, a way of providing a more integrative and creative way for interested psychology students to fulfill some of the basic psychology requirements. Art Warmoth, having spent an inspiring year on the faculty of The Evergreen State College in Washington, returned to Sonoma State to be the driving force behind this new experiment. He was joined by two other faculty members, Mac McCreary, and Joel Beak, both of whom worked with the community on a part-time basis. Since my involvement with the community in its formative years was only as an occasional peripheral observer, I'll defer to these three and any of the students who participated in the early years to provide us with more accurate and detailed information. Also, see chapters by Skip Robinson and Art Warmoth in School (2).

I did.however, gain a more intimate knowledge of the community in subsequent years after my retirement when I participated as a member for several semesters. I have been most impressed by the quality of the learning occurring with the vast majority of students committed to the program. I found it exciting to observe individuals evolve from initial stages of confused, often bored and angry dependency to self-assured, responsible, independent and genuinely collaborative learners. Some learned to be skilled and responsible group facilitators. I watched the mute, timid, and withdrawn find their voices and their courage to participate and create. I saw conflict and struggle and its resolution. I experienced many surprises at the contributions to the learning and growth of the group by individuals whose creative potential initially had lain buried beneath defensive masks. And when the masks were dropped,the door was opened to game-free, I-Thou, person- to-person communication and genuine love. These are the kinds of experiences I had known throughout my own personal quest for true education. I also experienced some of the best of this within the learning community. I know that you who have been a part of the learning community must have your own version of what I'm trying to describe here.

The Learning Community Support Group

I am impressed with the quality of the energy and involvement of those of us who have expressed an interest in and initial commitment to a learning community support group. This to me is ample evidence of both past success and future possibilities. I believe I'm on pretty solid ground in assuming that those of us who are committed to the development of a support group may share in common some significant needs, values, and aspirations. We have had a taste, caught a vision of possiblities in our educational quest together that we would like to have live on both in the present and the future. How, I ask, can a learning community support group help us to achieve this? In what follows I'd like to offer some of my own thoughts and suggestions as grist for the mill and invite reactions and suggestions of your own.

What can a continuing support group do for me? To be very specific, as I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, the few contacts with several of you both individually and in our three group meetings so far helped me break through a case of the blahs in my writing. Along with this it made me more aware of the the sort of inter-personal relations with co-learners, young in mind and spirit, that have nourished me for most of my professional and personal life. After dealing with the challenge of retirement for some time now, I am well aware that this nourishment just doesn't happen on its own. I must make time and space for it by reaching out for educational and creative ventures with people like yourselves.

Guidelines to consider

I hope you can bear with me in the struggle to get in touch with my own personal guidelines, products of my experience in many types of groups over the years. I've been trying to distill the essence of what has or hasn't worked for me and to lay it out for consideration and critique. I'll be interested in what makes sense to you and what doesn't. What has relevance to your own experience and what kinds of goals,structures and procedures that you feel might be suitable for our support group.

My first question, admittedly a broad one, is, "What structures and procedures are most likely to enable the group members to get in touch with what really matters to each person?" It's important to keep in mind that most of our group meetings so far have been limited to about two hours in a couple of cases and something like six hours in the Freestone meeting. In view of the fact that we will probably in the next few months be dealing with time frames about this size with a few weeks separating each of them. does it not make sense for each of us to pay attention to the problem of focus? I'd like to play with some ways that have helped me in the past.

What if each one of us came to the group meeting with a mind-set that we are entering a very special place in the search of what matters most to each of us? How can we best achieve this in the time and space allotted to us? I like to begin most groups that I work with by encouraging each person to consider the question, "How can I make the most out of this particular time together?" Of course, we know that the answer to this question isn't a simple one so we need to find, if possible, ways of getting beneath the surface of things and to learn to keep aware and in touch with our experience ie ., the stream of consciousness as it changes from moment to moment. (Just a reminder that NOW is all there is. The key is to stay aware of this.)

Are there ways to help us get in touch with the deeper parts of ourselves, the stuff that matters most to each of us? I believe there are. Lengthy periods of unfettered time and space without external distractions in itself seems to work for some people. This might work for most us if it were readily available or if for some reason or another it were forced upon us; however, for practical purposes I believe we need to find the ways of developing meaningful time and space within a social context. How to do this?

I can recall at least three situations in my experience that gave me some clues. The first happened many years ago when I was doing some volunteer work with The American Friends Service Committee, most of whom were Quakers.( Though not a Quaker myself, some of my best friends are Friends!) Anyway, most of you probably are aware that a Quaker meeting involves a leaderless group which typically meets for about an hour at a time in a context of silence. It begins in silence which may extend for the entire hour without anyone saying a word. On the other hand, anyone is free to speak, as the saying goes, "If the spirit moves." Whatever speaking might occur emerges from a backround of contemplative silence. There is no hierarchy. Each person is valued for who she or he is. Each person's contribution is accepted typically without comment. In business meetings of the Friends, decisions are made by consensus, that is, no action is taken unless everyone in the group agrees.

In working with T-groups and basic encounter groups in the early days I found a relationship to the Quaker meetings, particularly with regard to the values of silence, inner freedom, respect for the individual, and acknowledgment of the worth of each person's potential contributions to the life and purposes of the group as a whole. Group decisions by consensus for action (or inaction, for that matter) tend to flow naturally from such a context.

Another reference point for me is the inspiration I have derived from an admittedly limited understanding of some of the Native American attitudes toward inner-directedness, our relationships with each other and the whole of nature. From my vantage point I see connections between these and the attitudes of the Quakers described above. The use of the vision quest by Native Americans,in which adolescents spend an extended period in the wilderness, fasting in solitude until each has a vision or sense of his or her unique purpose in life, is a powerful rite of passage. And it is important to note that these initiates have been previously prepared, actually throughout most of their lives up to that point, and must then return to share what they have learned and strive to take their place within the tribal community.

I have also been intrigued by descriptions of some of the customs practiced in the Native American tribal meetings - one in particular is the use of the power stick. My understanding is that within a context of silence and contemplation, the group members are expected to search deeply within and when they speak to strive to speak "from the heart." The person who has the power stick may speak what he or she has to say while the others pay careful attention. Whoever wishes to speak next must request the power stick from the present speaker and so on.

I have used my own version of this procedure that I have found particularly useful when dealing with relatively large groups, who might not have met together as a group before. I have added what I consider a very helpful ground rule that each person who wishes to speak must first respond to the previous speaker by gaining permission to speak and reflect to that speaker's satisfaction that he or she understood the essence of that speaker's message. This set- up, though admittedly somewhat stilted and formal at times, also helps to avoid focus on a single leader and provides opportunity for more people to get involved in matters of importance to them.

The third group setting that provides me with a useful reference is the Findhorn Community in Scotland where my wife and I spent a couple of months in 1985. It was a wonderful experience in holistic community living. One might spend half the day at hard physical labor, mending fences, digging ditches,planting trees preparing meals, washing dishes, cleaning bathrooms, you name it. Then the rest of the time could be spent in any of a variety of group or individual activities in art, music, dance, drama, crafts, meditation, health and healing, and discussion groups on just about any topic one can imagine.

The Findhorn Community is a topic in itself, however, I'll confine my remarks here to the one element that impressed me most-the process of attunement. Attunement at Findhorn was a deceptively simple but powerfully effective process. It merely consisted of group members gathering silently in a circle closing eyes and focusing on 1) what you have to be grateful for, and 2) leaving yourself open to inner guidance. This usually lasted just a few minutes. Every group activity at Findhorn, whether a class or a group about to dig a sewer line, began with this simple process. Also, it was not uncommon at any point in a group activity if things weren't going just right that someone would call for an attunement at that moment. Many times I experienced how this process seemed to bring the group members back together toward more harmony. Having experienced throughout my years of group work a plethora of procedures and gimmicks, I"m hard put to find any consistently more effective than this simple process of attunement, a beautiful illustration of the principle, "less is more."

One final reference point I'd like to share with you. In 1968 I came across an article by Ruth Cohn, a practicing psychotherapist, that provided me with a specific guideline and procedure which has served me well ever since I came across it(1). The title: "I Must Do What I Want To (For Ten Minutes) A Therapeutic Game For Therapists, Patients, And Other People." In summary, Cohn asks the subject to sit alone in a room for ten minutes and concentrate on the "rule of the game", which is,"I must do what I want to." She also asks the subjects to check at every moment to determine if they are really doing what they want to (including body and mental activity) and, if not, to change and do what they want to. Most important is to be aware that what I want by definition, includes both my judgment and my impulses. For example, I may feel like smashing an object that I own. If I decide that to vent this feeling is important enough for me to accept the consequences of its loss then I may go ahead and smash it. In such a case I did what I wanted to. On the other hand, I may decide, after paying attention to both my feeling and my judgment, that the loss of the valued object would be too much to pay for the satisfaction I might gain from smashing it. In this case doing what I want to will involve something other than simply venting the original impulse. If you stop to consider it, as Cohn points out in her paper, we all are doing exactly what we want to all of the time. The point is that most of the time we're not aware of the fact. So what happens when we become fully conscious of this? Think about it.

I did, and saw fit to develop my own modifications of Cohn's game which I have found to be extremely helpful in most of the groups I've worked with for almost 30 years. In a way, isn't doing what I want to, somewhat in the manner described above, a version of "following my bliss" in the moment? What happens if we apply this principle when, for instance, while sitting in a class, we become conscious that we're really bored and ask ourselves, "Am I doing what I want to?" The answer might be, "Well, I guess I was, up to this point, but I don't want to keep feeling like this. Now, what do I really want to do?"

I have found a version of this procedure a real life saver when confronted with the situation of having responsibility for facilitating a large group all jammed into a space suitable perhaps for a group half the size. Several years ago I was scheduled to facilitate a group at a conference at Asilomar, Calif. The group was to meet something like two and a half hours every morning for a week. I've long forgotten the stated topic but I know that the people came with a range of interests and expectations about what might happen. Through some glitch in the scheduling I wound up with about twice as many people as originally intended, in a space about half the desirable size. No other room was available. Upon recovering from my initial shock and taking a quick inner inventory of my feelings while simultaneously gazing out the window at the exquisitely gorgeous panorama of blue sky, Monterey pines, and ocean waves gently caressing the white sandy beach, I knew for certain that I did not want to remain couped up in that room all morning with people, many of whom were probably harboring feelings similar to mine. After sharing my feelings with them I proposed that we spend about an hour doing just what we wanted to. I believe I did give a brief spiel about the process described above. I also mentioned that since this was the beginning day and many of the other groups might have openings that I hoped those who felt they belonged elsewhere should feel free to shop around. I stressed the importance of two things for those who wanted to be members of this group : 1) pay attention to what you are experiencing as you attempt to do what you want to, and 2) at the end of an hour return to this space to share your experiences with others in the group.

The group burst into many fragments. Some paired with another person they chose to be with. Others gathered in groups of maybe three or four members. A few sat alone under trees reading or writing. One woman sat under a tree playing a recorder. Quite a few wandered alone, some to the beach, others to the forest. One group of about eight remained in the original meeting room carrying on their own discussion. My choice was to walk by myself on the beach. That was what I most wanted at that time.

I remember the sense of freedom I felt as I left that room to do exactly what I wanted to at that point in time. As I walked and absorbed the beauty that surrounded me, I also observed passing thoughts about the meaning of my responsibility both to myself and the group. I had no doubt about the fact that I was taking good care of myself, but what about the group, which viewed from most perspectives was also my responsibility? My answer to the responsibility question came clear to me. My goal as an educator is to help people to be responsible for themselves, to free them from dependence on me or any other person. It also came clear to me that I was not abandoning the group simply to "do their own thing" and I do mine. Not at all. That never seems to work. The other side of the coin is to develop and maintain connection to others and to build a community in which we can relate and nourish each other while at the same time celebrating our uniqeness and freedom to be ourselves. We did this by being clear about the expection that people touch base with the larger group to share what they experienced and learned in their individual quests.

Another thought that popped into my consciousness as I strolled the beach that morning had to do with the question, "Can strolling the beach alone like this while I'm in charge of conducting a group be thought of as work?" And, another,related to the first, "What makes the difference between this activity and just any old walk on the beach?" The answer that came to me was "simply the act of paying attention" or if you will, developing "mindfulness." I know of no more important work than this.

I seem to have wandered far and wide in my journey. As I review the various meandering side-trips I've taken to attempt to sort out and clarify my thoughts I wonder if it's possible to pin- point the essentials that might be relevant to our work together. I shall try:

1) I believe that support groups, such as the one we now have, offer some of the best opportunities I know of for producing significant change in ourselves and the world about us.

2) The most important work is the raising of consciousness, ie . developing mindfulness via the various disciplines available to us such as, meditation, group encounter, psychotherapy, body work, dialogue, etc..

3) We need to work at developing more humanistic, life enhancing systems than the existing ones, in government, schools, business, medicine, families, and in the various helping professions. However,a word of caution:

4) Without awareness and the wisdom resulting from it, the most fervent attempts to do good may do anything but, and more than likely may make things worse.

5) I presently am lacking in specific knowlege of how to change the big world out there but I like to think that I have had some modest success in changing my small corner of it by my work in education. Perhaps the trick is to try to do both at the same time. I need to learn a lot more about how to do this.

6) At the risk of over-simplication I'd like to summarize here what for me are most important guidelines for using the group to the best advantage for us all:
a) I would begin with the simple process of attunement in which we attend to what we have to be grateful for and then ask for and stay open for guidance from within.

b) I would remind us to pay continual attention both to what we are experiencing at that moment and as the spirit moves, share what we wish of our experience with others.

c) I would hope for all of us to cultivate and practice the art of listening empathically to each other.

d) I would stress the importance of doing what we want to and paying attention as to whether or not we are fulfilling this purpose in each moment.

And a final reminder that the present moment is really all we have and there are no rules for jumping into the new because nobody has ever been there before. If at any given moment you know in your heart of hearts that the rules you've been taught,or any of the above guidelines are not right for you, then throw the book away and try to find out what is.

  1. Cohn,R.C.,"I Must Do What I Want To", Voices,4, 1968
  2. Robinson,Skip, Thomas,H,F.,Warmoth,Arthur,School ,1994
  3. Thomas,H.F.,"Keeping Person-Centered Education Alive in Academic Settings",Person-Centered Review , Vol.3,Aug,1988
  4. ____________,"Self-Actualization Through the Group Experience," J. Humanistic Psychology ,1963
  5. ____________,"Toward a Rationale and Model for Basic Education".In E,Bauman, L.Piper,and A.Wright(Eds.),The Holistic Health Lifebook ,(pp.282-293).Berkeley: And/Or Press, 1980



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