I land softly and joyfully in San Francisco. A cool but bright summer here. The pulse of the city is a vibrant inspiration, a delight for the physical and metaphysical senses.
I began my journey at the Cultural Integration Fellowship
an ashram of great peace and beauty. It was founded in 1951 by Haridas Chaudhuri, a student of Sri Aurobindo, with the intention of presenting a synthesis of Eastern and Western Philosophy. It was to be a place of gathering to explore ideas of East and West in a non denominational context.
The school I am attending was birthed in this framework. The California Institute of Integral Studies was founded by Chaudhrui who was advised by Aurobindo to bring his teachings of Integral Yoga to the west.
We began our Integral Counselling Psychology Program with a 7 day retreat in the foothills of Petaluma. The retreat centre, The Institute of Noetic Studies, held us for jam packed days exploring the Integral Psychotherapy model of Sri Aurobindo. A 2011 cohort of 36 people split into two groups was born. We had classes on Therapeutic Communications, Integral Yoga Philosophy, Group Dynamics and Human Development. The exploration was weighted equally between lecture and experience, with many hours getting to know each other deeply through group exercises and after class time. These classes will weave through the rest of our school year at the CIIS campus in the SOMA area of San Francisco.
The most potent and memorable of these group exercises took place in a three day intensive “T-Group” setting. T-groups groups are known as “Sensitivity Training,” group time facilitated by an experienced therapist but mainly directed by the group itself to reveal insights into how individuals interact in groups. Insightful and challenging, these group experiences shed light on how an individual is in relationship to the world around them. Through directive dialogue, laughter and tears, the group became deeply bonded through facing and embracing conflict. We were asked to look at uncomfortable feelings and patterns in relationship in order to transform ourselves into a more harmonious whole.
In What the T-Group Teaches, Ted Kroeber describes this process:
“There is no agenda and no task, nothing to do and nothing to talk about except what is going on in the group. It is an opportunity for the members to examine the processes of the group. With task and agenda absent for once, those processes may be examined in the clear.” (Kroeber, p. 1).
In the article Observing Without Evaluating, Marshall Rosenberg talks about Non Violent Communication. He looks at the importance of observation as a way of expressing honestly, specifically and clearly what we see in another person. He describes observation; “When we combine observation with evaluation… we decrease the likelihood that others will hear our intended message. Instead, they are apt to hear criticism and thus resist what we are saying.” (Rosenberg, 2003, p.26). We often wrap observation up in evaluation. Evaluation is an assumed judgment; “you are lazy.” An observation without evaluation would be phrased, “I see you laying on the couch for several hours a day.” It is a specific, observable behaviour that can be seen by the person. The idea is that the phrase “you are lazy” won’t motivate the person, it will just alienate them and make them feel judged.
If we want to win in a situation, chances are we will not be focused on achieving other aims. Krober sees this as a game; “Were you governed by laws of justice or had a bit of win-lose crept in there? The hypothesis we are here developing holds that you, like us, may be locked in this endless game; and unlike tennis and other in the open games, the one-up game is a terrible burden (it may be the terrible burden) and one which interferes over an over again with attaining goals which would afford some satisfaction.” (Kroeber, p. 5).
Kroeber asks, “Do you want to learn or do you want to win? We suggest that to do both is not possible; it is necessary to choose…. and it is finally suggested that the great irony is this: I want to love, yet I act like I want to win. But this sort of winning is hardly satisfying; what would bring me satisfaction is exactly what I say–I really want to love–but I dare not (for fear of losing). So the study of interpersonal communication in our laboratories has been, in large part, a study of the techniques of armament and disarmament in the world of verbal one-upmanship.” (Krober, p. 6).
It is too scary to just be in the expansive presence, so we grasp for old familiar mental boxes to organize our new experience. When a new space opens we often feel scared and offer up old ways of being, instilling in others their old identities. When we can be with our own discomfort we can offer a deeper and more full presence to others. When we let go of our old identities and allow the pain and fear to be felt, we discover that the feelings we have been shutting out are not that debilitating. The discovery of impermanence is a result of this. Our experiences are not fixed in finality. Only when we make up stories about them do they seem permanent, immovable, all powerful. Building presence doesn’t mean shutting out not being present, but rather noticing how we loose presence, how this affects us, and bringing ourselves back. This happened to me many times in the group. I lost presence and indulged in disengagement and distraction. I was uncomfortable with silence and being. This seems to be an important part of Non Violent Communication where we admit we don’t know and to be with that. We can only say how we feel and the impact that that has on us. We cannot know the intentions of others. Not knowing, and being in a space of no agenda helps us to look at ourselves and others honestly. When we communicate in a non defensive way, it can allow barriers that block us from others and our own true impulses to dissolve.
I also felt very amazing when I could be vulnerable. The group seemed to really come alive for me and support me when I was truly vulnerable, experiencing difficult emotions and memories. I was able to share with them the experience of this and they offered very helpful feedback. They really appreciated seeing my vulnerability and saw a lot of strength in it. I was asked if it was harder to be vulnerable or to be strong. It is something I’m reflecting on. To be vulnerable requires strength and courage. To be strong is vulnerable because people will try to challenge you. Ultimately it is hard to pretend. There is an ease to being genuine, I feel like it’s something we fall into without trying. But to allow this to happen is hard.
We learned how, contrary to how we act, being vulnerable actually resolves conflict. We think it should take a big effort to resolve conflict, like it is a big job. But often being vulnerable allows the conflict to resolve itself. There is no more fight. We cannot fight when we realize the other person is as vulnerable as we are.