Erich Fromm's Escape from Freedom, published in mid-twentieth century, portrayed a conformist culture that was swallowing up American freedoms. He saw a widespread surrender of individual vitality to communal pressures and showed how this loss of freedom numbs the human spirit. (Fromm, 1945, p. 177) Psychotherapists were especially sensitive to these perceptions, having seen the pathological effects of conformity over and over again. The lesson they learned about conventionality and the lesson they taught caught on, perhaps too compellingly, as they framed individuality as a social mantra.
The time seems ripe now to re-balance the one-sided scenario. Rather than to emphasize communal allure as an escape from freedom, it is now given increasing recognition as an indivisible partner to freedom, a rescuer of the isolated individual from vacuity and helplessness. The conformity which Fromm and his contemporaries highlighted in their day as human fallibility is receiving new proportionality, both as a healthy need to belong and an inevitable part of the human challenge to integrate the needs for community and individuality. Fromm, himself, did also see the beneficial aspects of the communal, summing up the struggle by saying,
We believe that there is a positive answer, that the process of growing freedom does not constitute a vicious circle, and that man can be free and yet not alone, critical and yet not filled with doubts, independent and yet an integral part of mankind. (Fromm, 1945, p.256)
Must we all not reconcile ourselves to the natural paradox that we wrest our self definition from a contradictory indivisibility from the surround within which we are always embedded--a generic imperative we live with forever? Any society needs to keep its eye on the balance between individuality and community and to redress the distortions. That's what the groups reported in this anthology have done. They have, each in their own settings, carved out an encompassing complementarity. The first type of group is composed of psychological professionals. The second describes non-psychologist groups, each of which has its own thematic identity. Both types of groups have set out to satisfy functional needs, targeted to increase the successful performance of its tasks. However, each went beyond task orientation to explore the role of personhood and individuality in the realm of communal requirements for meeting functional standards.
Professional Psychologist Communities
I can well remember my own experience in the early stages of learning gestalt therapy. In 1953, a number of colleagues joined together to form groups in which we would through personal exploration try out those psychological principles and procedures we were learning to apply in our work with our patients. That is, we sought to improve the quality of our contact with each other, to expand our awareness of our feelings, actions and purposes, to experiment with ordinary life functions, like how we breathed, how we walked, how we talked; how we created fantasies, how we treated our children, how we divided responsibility at home. It is easy even now to remember the excitement and devotion evident in these life-revealing examinations, where we opened ourselves to each other with communications normally held to be private. We saw these searches not as a look into our pathologies, as traditional psychology would have posed the search, but rather as a deepening of our understanding of the nature of personhood.
Though this openness to each other was, indeed, revelatory its personal benefits were seen to be secondary to the primary purpose of improving our skills in doing psychotherapy. Though the kindling powers of camaraderie did serve to increase our sensibilities for the experiences of our patients, it became apparent that, as we deepened our connectedness to each other, what we had thought was incidental to our professional advancement became much more. There was a different brand of learning operating, one which invited us to tune into our own lives. What became more central than ever was the clarity of personal identity, the security of belonging and the hospitality to expanded psychological vistas. Still, most of us failed to create a communal psychotherapy and went on to enrich the craft which we were already practicing in the conduct of private psychotherapy.
This communal opportunity, too new then, is now still open and attracting more and more attention. The writers of this anthology are responding to this call and they report a range of group settings where people meet with each other and provide each other with an increased sense of freedom and safety to explore their inner psychological dynamics. One of the authors, Lichtenberg, describes a study group based on gestalt therapy's principles of engagement and he says:
"the group serves an educational function, a therapeutic function, a support function, and a growth-enhancing function. In my mind, this group has been a model of what small gatherings throughout society could look like, a model that promotes democratic and egalitarian human relationships. I have patterned groups in my retirement community after this study group."
Bloom, another of the writers, describes the long history of his community's struggles with the ins and outs of both theory and the functions of their learning community. He highlights his insights by saying:
"the aggressively democratic notion that psychotherapy belongs to everyone, and not only to the domain of clinicians with the authority of a priestly cast. Moreover, these exercises are the crucial beginning of a psychotherapy absolutely grounded in experience."
Stevens, in yet another example, says about her group "each of us has a part to play; and there is a developing shared history of engaging with and relating to each other."
These are only brief synopses of the larger picture these writers portray but they, as well as the other writers in this anthology, each intones the arrival of a new stage in the evolution of psychology; the transformation of private psychotherapy into a communal format. In chapter after chapter, group after group, we see the therapeutically based development of mutuality, stimulation, self-enhancement, and a strong sense of belonging. In each case, the basics of medically grounded psychotherapy, historically targeted to working with patients, have been pointed forward, toward its applicability for anyone who wants it. Such a populist expansion promises to move psychotherapy forward from its familiar attention to the diagnosis and treatment of people suffering from acute individual distress. The new populist parameters encompass the larger realm of interests of people at large, guiding them to address the ordinary concerns of living well.
No less responsive is the second type of group, its membership composed of people who were not psychologists. These groups were formed sometimes within organizational systems, sometimes composed of homeless people, sometimes operating within religious systems, sometimes appearing in neighborhoods. Nachison, for one, has gathered amazing throngs of homeless veterans who come to his annual "Stand down" meetings. He designs the enclaves so they will:
"promote a sense of belonging, and an unconditional acceptance, which leads to an increase in esteem. By the third day of Stand Down, members are working together to achieve individual and group goals and move beyond painful self-absorption. They support fellow participants and the larger community and begin to actualize their potential, moving towards success and stability."
In these groups, composed of people who were strangers to each other, Nachison has witnessed large increases in personal intimacy, security, empathy, hopefulness, and a sense of belonging. Though he recognizes the difficulty of measuring the merits of such groups, he is able to point to the satisfaction of certain standards, such as finding jobs or housing or recovery from addiction. What he finds most difficult to measure and what is most evident is the extraordinary vitality created in these communal assemblages and the devotion to the program, as well as to the connection with each other which their experiences evoked.
At the opposite end of the career scale, Zauderer offers a further example of the communal factor in a description of his Key Executive Leadership Program. In place of a climate where personal relationships were only incidental to the primary task orientation, he shows us the transformations resulting when people's feelings became a key part of the atmosphere. The harsh criticism often encountered in aggressive training settings gave way to empathy with each other, helping each other to learn the material together rather than competing. In feeling at home with fellow trainees, they supported each other's optimal assimilation of the task requirements. Zauderer observes that:
"core values provided guidance to both students and faculty and encouraged personal commitment, respectful interactions and relational thinking and action that addressed the needs of the self and other in the community."
The shifts in method and perspective reported in this anthology show that in these diverse settings these authors created a convergence, on the one hand, of skill acquisition, practical productivity, occupational ambition, and personal survival with, on the other hand, a high focus on how they may live well with the people around them. If we take the atmosphere of private therapy as a model and transform its perspectives to the needs of occupational groups, we see that these groups benefit from many of the same conditions we create in private therapy. A basic representation of those conditions is to prepare for concrete problem solving by expanding freedom from social stereotypes and inculcated goals, by creating a trusted and strongly felt bonding and by creating a fascination with personal awareness. What stands out as pivotal is, first, that the people in these groups were able to communicate intimately with each other without fear of departmental reprisal or peer ostracism and, second, that an increased opportunity was created for a new light to shine on their own qualities. When this reprieve from the prospects of shame and defeat is cultivated, even in settings where ambitions and personal standing are heavily at stake, it enhances the chances for a liveable relational freedom.
There are many types of groups which may benefit from the application of these therapeutically derived communal principles: business organizations, schools, government, athletic teams, retirement communities, advocacy groups, prison populations, hospice settings and others. It is becoming clear that, over the years, more and more attention is given to the conjunction between the practical improvement of function and the more manifestly self enhancing properties of communal embrace, benign guidance and restorative awareness.
A Look at the Future
There is yet another step to be taken, perhaps the largest; to go right to the heart of the psychological domain, beyond the goal of instrumental improvement. This would require us to explicitly create a populist system of groups, people not just seeking expansion of their occupational skills. Rather, they are looking at the everyday elements of living, itself: being interested and responsive to the people around them, telling stories to each other, crying together when sad, laughing about familiar idiosyncrasies, identifying their heroes and their villains, revealing shameful experiences, giving and receiving praise, singing symbolic music, dancing inspirationally. This communal accentuation of the everyday needs of people takes a page out of religion by guiding them to a fresh look at a large range of ordinary, non-pathological human concerns. But the forms of engagement are very different, the priorities of psychology in clear ascendancy, never isolated from practical self improvement but primarily tapping the innermost sensibilities of the members and providing the embodiment of belonging.
Now, let us look at the format. First is the concept of congregation. A congregation is a community but it is a special form of community. It is, by definition, a group of people who come together. But it is more. We don't say we are members of a congregation if we go to a lecture. We don't say it about the theatre, concert or sports events or any of a number of other venues where people come together. Further, when we name these groups Life Focus Communities, (Polster, 2006) the word, community, which encompasses various possible constituencies, doesn't quite get across the strength of interpersonal bonding or the quality of like-mindedness or the depth of personal revelation and support. The word, congregation, gets these across more fully, because it implies an enduring allegiance and a shared willingness to delve into a communally designated process, such as the exploration of personal experience.
Second, I am proposing that these groups must have a benign ethos. This is a prime requirement in private therapy and therapists are well trained to provide it even under possibly provocative circumstances. The creation of such feelings of safety in the large group situation is more complex. In private therapy only the therapist is required to honor the need for safety and she is professionally prepared, whereas in the large group, there may be a diversity of both readiness and skill. Such safety is an important condition because only in safe situations will people feel free to explore profoundly at a level to which these groups are pointed. Without the assurance of a mutuality of minds, geared to be supportive and understanding, the enterprise would offer greater sense of danger than most people could handle.
However, it is also abundantly clear that in the context of freedom of expression and awareness, the benign mind may bump into vital counterpoints of critique, of confrontation and of adversarial battles. These can, indeed, be both exhilarating and therapeutic under the right circumstances. There are many who would see this adversarial component as, first of all, humanly inevitable and, secondly, an important spur for growth. While there is merit to this perspective, the adversarial dynamic creates high risk. An excess of such a dynamic has often been self-defeating and would be counter-productive for many people for whom these groups are intended.
So, in trying to maintain a benign atmosphere in the context of freedom, the leadership has a challenging job. But the challenge is worth facing. There are many ways to create a benign atmosphere, including the behavior and personality example offered by the leaders, who must emit feelings of breadth and acceptance. The leaders would also design non-adversarial exercises, create experiences of singing and dancing and orient people about the values of mutuality. In my own experience of leading such groups, I have encountered little of the adversarial, nor has it been unresolvable when it occurs. One example of a deeply evocative but not invasive exercise was to explore the concept of “home”, what it means to people. I played a hauntingly beautiful song about home. (Liv Johnson's Tanzania CD—don’t know whether to include this information or how). People in sub-groups were asked to listen carefully to the music, drink it in and then tell each other what the music has evoked. Some are refreshed by the return to beloved experiences, others are reminded of what they missed, others disdain home as a sentimental concept, other tell about the home they have created in their adult years. The group is instructed not to be interpretive or judgmental, accepting each person’s reactions on its own terms. Within this frame of reference, whatever the group’s range of reactions may be, the people come to know something dear about each other's lives and this provides them with an enlarged sense of both perspective and belonging.
While careful not to be pollyannish about the mutual appreciation of each other’s lives, it is important to know that people in these groups often demonstrate that in a benign atmosphere colorfulness, vitality, honesty, and sharp perception can survive the risk of conformity. That kind of perspective is in keeping with the conditions of private therapy as well, where vital, honest and mind broadening conversation often develops because of the benign atmosphere, a healthy ground for personal growth.
To further distinguish between diminishment through conformity and the enhancement provided by a communal mutuality, let us consider the existence of a neurological readiness which gives biological urgency to the quest for union.
As I have previously said,
This imperative for union…represents a special neurological urgency, the baseline for an intimacy that…goes beyond casual connectedness and when it is enlarged from simple awareness by activation of the deeper forms of concentration and need, it may represent the soul of belonging, the bonding which is often described in more cool terms as the native gregariousness of humans (Polster, 2006, p. 51)
While a full portrayal of the neurological basis for merger is beyond the scope of this essay, there is considerable neurological support for the existence of a reflex to one-ness (Newberg, D'Aquili, & Rause, 2001). These early experimental results, as well as an obvious, historically based, premise of an ancient need for people to congregate with each other, are sufficiently convincing to provide a valuable gravitas for the creation of psychotherapeutic communities. The magnet of the interwoven relationship is also widely reflected in therapeutic theories. There is a central role, for example, of the concept of contact in gestalt therapy theory (Perls et al, 1951), through which connections with otherness are represented as so fundamental that they precede any strategic value of relationships. Kohutian self/object theory, for another, portrays an infant who is unable to distinguish between self and other. This innate summons to indivisibility, percolating always even in later years, underneath the threshold of awareness, neurologically grounded, operates subtly outside awareness. Would such a native primacy not be further actuated by groups which amplify human connectedness, perhaps serving boldly as a parallel to the merger effects of a belief in God, the indivisible and ubiquitous otherness with whom so many people have historically cast their lot?
It does not take a lot of humility to understand that nobody knows the answer to the question of whether there actually is or isn't a God. But that is not the question to ask here, a question beyond the scope of neurology or psychology to answer. The question to ask is whether the magnetism to God represents a key message about the human tropism to relational indivisibility. In recognizing the prodigious human powers of metaphor, we may see that in both the belief in indivisibility from God and the belief in indivisibility from community, mind transcends literal truth, accepting the approximate and the poetic, trumping the literal with trusted enchantment. As I have previously written (Polster, 2006),
"Although those who experience oneness with God often believe the experience to be in a class by itself, it is no diminishment of the beauty and the value of their experience of God to recognize that this indivisible oneness may also be evident in other relationships. An imbedded communal authority, usually a parent, a wise person, a charismatic leader, or the community, itself, will, in strongly felt circumstances, provide similar feelings of oneness." (Italics added)
Psychotherapy principles and procedures lack the surpassing attraction which the magisterial poetry of God provides. Yet psychotherapy has great potential to be captivating on its own merits; especially so were there to be a ceremonial augmentation of familiar psychotherapy practices through music, poetry, painting and architecture, all of which create excellent resonance with deep human experience. In synchronicity with the feelings of its group membership and through sensitive selections of the most beautiful and psychologically pertinent representations of the arts, the design of communal interactions could have a quasi-mystical leverage comparable to the attractions of the religiously supernatural enlargement of ordinary feelings. Psychotherapy can also elevate its principles and practices into a new ascendancy, highlighting the importance of empathy, individual self enhancement, a wide range of commonly experienced human struggles and joys and all of psychotherapy's plenitude of behavioral guidelines.
In conclusion, what I am describing here is a communal therapeutic process which has been growing silently for many years. It is grounded in an encyclopedic treasure of illuminations, which populate libraries and fill the curricula of universities. This compendious perspective provides the palette from which all psychological colors may be drawn. I believe the time is ripe enough now for psychotherapists to capitalize on this accumulation of knowledge and spread its application to addressing the widespread need for lifelong guidance in the ever flowing coordination of the forces driving every person's life. As this book illustrates, such psychology oriented groupings have already taken many forms and will probably expand their presence and their heterogeneity even more as the years go on. An increased recognition by psychotherapists of this expanded role will increase experimentation and encourage psychotherapists to seek these new opportunities for positioning their knowledge and expertise into the arena of everyday living.
A natural question about such an ambitious undertaking is why do it? Isn't it enough for psychotherapists to continue to sharpen their tools to solve the psychological problems when people seek professional help? The answer is no; that it is not enough to just do what we have been doing. There is an extrapolation imperative basic to people; to look forward to whatever options are next, reconciling novelty with the already formed. Nowadays, a concern with personal identity and belonging beckons. People also need guidance in facing key life happenings, like dying, birthing, marrying, fighting and loving. We now see more clearly than ever that the personal dimension of living, which has been so fruitfully accentuated by the discoveries of private therapy, can now be further expanded into its communal context. The revelatory results of high focus attention may point a wider range of people than ever to gather together publicly to pay vital and devoted attention to how they live their lives.
Bentall, R.P. (2000). In E. Cardena, S.J. Lynn, & S. Krippner (Eds.), Varieties of Anomalous Experience (p. 94). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association
Buber, Martin, I and Thou, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York 1958.
Cloninger, C.R. Feeling Good. New York: Oxford, 2004.
Damasio, A. The Feeling of What Happens. New York: Harcourt Brace. 1999
Fromm, Erich, Escape from Freedom, Henry Holt, N.Y. 1941
Lewis, T., Amini, F., & Lannon, R. A General Theory of Love. New York: Vintage 2001.
Newberg, A., D'Aquili, E., & Rause, V. Why God Won't Go Away. New York: Ballantine 2001.
Perls, R., Hefferline, R., & Goodman, P. Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality. New York: Julian Press, 1951
Polster, Erving. Uncommon Ground, Zeig, Tucker and Theissen, Phoenix, 2006
Siegel, D. J. The Developing Mind. New York, Guilford, 1999
Epilogue by Erving Polster
Community, Psychotherapy and Life Focus: A Gestalt Anthology of the History Theory and Practice of Living in Community (2009) O’Neill, B. (editor) Ravenwood Press, Australia.