Monday, December 8, 2008

Contrasting Spiritual & Secular Groups

Saturday I finished a couple days working with Lumbini Gardens, a forming community hoping to build a residential Dzogchen Buddhist community on 10 acres in La Ribera, a small village at the southern end of Baja California, facing the Sea of Cortez.

Mostly I was helping them sort out some hurtful internal dynamics which had seriously undermined the level of trust among members in recent months. While we did well together cleansing the wounds (which mostly means being able to validate everyone’s feelings and to explain to everyone’s satisfaction how no one’s actions or statements were done with intent to harm), it remains to be seen how much energy exists among the current configuration of members for a renewed effort to manifest the community.

Regardless of their future prospects, I was highly impressed with the courage and vulnerability displayed by the 16 Lumbinians who attended the sessions. As far as I could tell this was directly attributable to their joint Dzogchen practice and thus, their personal and collective familiarity with self-reflection.

While most of my experience as a group process consultant is with secular groups, by which I mean groups that do not ask for a commitment to spiritual inquiry—either in general, or with a specific path—as a condition of membership, I’ve had occasion to work with spiritual groups perhaps half a dozen times, and there tend to be some significant differences between those and secular groups.

Difference #1
When a group struggles (and let’s face it, I rarely get asked in unless a group is struggling), having a common relationship to spiritual inquiry can be a terrific benefit. It becomes a life ring in troubled seas, and a reason to hang in there when members otherwise might feel like giving up. It’s also a reason to continue to extend trust to someone you otherwise might be inclined to write off. That is, spiritual groups tend to be less brittle in the presence of conflict.

Difference #2
Most spiritual practices ask devotees to develop their capacity for self-reflection and make an effort to improve their awareness of how their actions land with others. To the extent that practitioners make progress with those disciplines, and are already habituated to that kind of humble inquiry, it’s gold when working through conflicted dynamics.

My experience with Lumbini Gradens was a good example of this. To be sure, there was still some defensiveness and deflection in the heat of the moment, yet, on the whole, there was remarkably little of that and the group was laudably sure-footed in finding its way through the prickly tangle of accusatory statements.

Difference #3
In spiritual groups you can typically count on a willingness among members to accept the help of others in finding one's way through this vale of tears. Thus, in spiritual groups there tends to be less ego attachment, or at least a greater awareness of one's susceptibility to ego attachment. As a consequence, people with a common practice tend to find it less embarrassing to accept responsibility in front of others for the inadvertent harm caused by their not-so-enlightened actions or statements, once that damage has been revealed with care and sensitivity. This can be very healing for the group, and a balm that is sometimes out of reach with secular groups.

Difference #4
When laboring with spiritual groups to unpack conflicted dynamics, I’ve occasionally experienced people reaching a point where they simply surrender to the idea that they’ve done something poorly (the psychic equivalent of a dog rolling over and exposing its throat)—not because they’ve suddenly “gotten it,” but more because they’ve reached a point where they can no longer tolerate being in struggle or having their behavior spotlighted. In such situations, I’ve had an uneasy feeling that the energetic shift has not been accompanied by a gain in understanding, and the dynamic is just as likely to happen again.

I see this as the insidious side of “leaps of faith.” If spiritual truths are not required to make rational sense, then who’s to say that surrender to another’s analysis of how you’ve fucked up isn’t a prelude to the next spiritual leap? Perhaps, in some mixed up way, the crazier the accusation, the more appealing it is to surrender to it. While I don’t see this a lot (fortunately), it happens often enough that I’m alert for it.

Difference #5
Sometimes spiritual groups confuse emotional maturity with spiritual maturity. When this happens there can be terrific forces at play to suppress emotional distress for fear it will be viewed as a lack of spiritual accomplishment, and therefore lead to a demotion of stature in the spiritual community.

While I found no evidence of this particular malaise at Lumbini, I’ve run into it previously with spiritual groups and I’ve learned to be on guard for it.

Outside of therapy, North American culture has precious few models for working well with emotions in group settings, and it’s only fair to point out that secular groups don’t tend to handle this well either. However, at their worst, spiritual groups can actively suppress feelings of distress, where secular groups tend to simply be confused and nervous about it.

• • •
As I continue to ply my craft, I'll be watching for other patterned differences between spiritual and secular groups. Meanwhile, this is as far as I’ve gotten to date.

1 comment:

ddjango said...


I'm so grateful for this post . . .

I am an atheist (but not an anti-theist or anti-spiritualist) who is also convinced that small, purposed communities are critical to our very survival. I've been pushing this for a long time on my own blog.

I share your observations. But in spite of the difficulties and dangers you note, I still think spiritual communities have an advantage, in that individuals more readily "surrender to a higher power" in times of crisis in those communities than in secular ones.

The challenge for secular communities, I think, will be in defining and understanding what that "higher power" is. Perhaps it will suffice to substitute "common good/need" for "higher power", but I sense it is not so simple.

I look forward to your further work in this area.

Be at peace.

The challenge