This is the third blog of a series that I am writing on process work, encounter groups, T-groups, and L-groups, and in this blog, I seek to trace the genealogy or lineage of process work as it is experienced in Sumedhas offerings, methods, and ideologies today.
This blog may excite only the oddball who is perpetually searching for clues in how process work in groups has evolved, and who would be joyfully elated to find a rare nugget that is a part of the Sumedhas rubric or methodology today.
My first blog of this series was on how one maps group dynamics and yet works with individuals in group settings — the blog began with a simple question — “Do you work with the individual as who he or she is including identity and role-taking, or do you work with the individual as a container of group’s anxieties, projections, and processes in the here and now?”.
The second blog explores another dilemma for the facilitator of the group — when and where should I affirm and when and where should I challenge — and may be useful for those who work with groups, change management teams, organization development and coaching.
Part 1: Going beyond Kurt Lewin and Wilfred Bion: The First Step
Most practitioners are quick to point out the significant impact of Kurt Lewin and Wilfred Bion on how a praxis of working with groups has evolved — and perhaps rightly so — for both Lewin and Bion offered constructs, concepts, theories, and practices that transformed one’s understanding of this phenomenon.
However, my two decades of working with process work and behavioral labs in Sumedhas has only highlighted that there is much to explore, integrate, and value beyond Bion and Lewin. It also meant tracing other thinkers and practitioners that do not get acknowledged within such institutional spaces.
The first step in our journey would be to map, discern, and contrast two ideologies that have shaped an understanding of human behavior, and have led to indelible impact. The first strand is more familiar and rampantly spoken of — it still needs a quick summary. The second strand remains inaccessible to most and becomes a key part of the blog in this section.
Freudian Psychodynamics and its impact on Working in Groups
Freud believed that we are governed by instinctual forces that lie deep within, and these gradually unfurl or blossom through our psycho-sexual development cycle — he mapped it across five stages including oral, anal, phallic etc. These instinctual forces would unleash conflicts on several fronts — for some of these instincts are innately conflicting urges such as Eros versus Thanatos, and some of these instincts collide with the demands of society, such as immediate gratification and the need for delaying it.
In many ways, Freud’s view of the human being is one who is at war with a world that prevents the expression and satisfaction of innate aggressive and sexual appetites.
It is this view of the world that has prompted so many thinkers to join in when it comes to working with groups.
a) In my view, Wilfred Bion was at heart a Freudian, except that he looked at a ‘group’ as a unit of enquiry and introduced the notion of a ‘group mentality’ with both elements of the conscious and the group unconscious. Bion’s work on Basic Assumption groups (these are unconscious processes that impede the group) including Basic Assumption Dependency or Basic Assumption Fight / Flight leads to a view that Groups too, are at war with a context that prevents the expression of innate aggressive appetites.
In most group relation conferences this view of innate ‘aggressive’ as well as ‘creative’ aspects of the unconscious are explored and worked with.
b) In Sumedhas, the influence of Erik Erikson (who was mentored by Freud) on identity forming and identity patterns has often been referred to, and that each human being develops and evolves through pre-determined life stages — Erikson integrates lifespan stages as a part of his wish to build a bridge between the psychological (Freudian) and the social world.
The work on Life Roles Analysis (LRA) or Life Spaces Exploration (LSE) is influenced to a large extent by Eriksonian’s perspectives, as well as Freudian thought.
However there has always been an unease with the Freudian Psychodynamics strand in process workspaces, and for multiple reasons such as:
· Exploration has always meant ‘excavating’ the many-layered psyche, till you reach the bedrock of fundamental conflicts that emerged from the earliest events in the life of the individual. In a group setting, very often the task of such excavations is left to the group facilitator and thereby the group colludes with the facilitator into mining the realms of the individual psyche that may not be relevant.
· The Freudian strand is quite reductionist where a handful of basic drives determine the psyche of the individual or the group. One of the unintended consequences of working with groups is the valency of the group to adhere to such basic drives as if these explain everything in the phenomena.
· And lastly the Freudian strand is also deterministic by its critics where the underlying belief is that all mental functioning is caused by identifiable factors already in existence.
Existential Psychodynamics and Humanistic Psychology
Usually, the first association with existentialism is with philosophy, and my own association is that of literature (Kafka and Camus) apart from the EUM framework . The usual words or jargon associated with existentialism are — choice, mortality, purpose, absurdity, or isolation.
The existential position was to challenge the Cartesian view of a world that is full of objects and of subjects that perceive the objects (this view has given rise to the scientific method), and states that the person is not a ‘subject’ that can perceive reality but as a ‘consciousness’ who participates in the construction of reality.
In my early years of internship with Sumedhas, it was important as a practitioner to understand the existential position for it was easy otherwise to become judgmental of a member within a group and how she or he constructed reality in the here and now. While we all eschewed Heidegger (and the construct of Dasein), some of us during the internship read or re-read Camus, Kafka, and others as a way of discovering what ‘choice’, ‘absurdity’ or ‘morality’ meant.
And while many of us as a generation of process workers within the institution emerged with some understanding of existentialism, we never read upon existential psychodynamics. It was only in the recent two years, where I have been reading two fascinating thinkers and psychotherapists –Irvin Yalom and George Kelly — that made this strand of thought and its application in group work clearer.
The reader may ask — What then is Existential Psychodynamics?
I am quoting Irvin Yalom, who has defined existential psychodynamics as the study of a different tension within — and not just a conflict between instinctual strivings, but instead “a conflict that flows from the individual’s confrontation with the givens of existence”. By the ‘givens’, Yalom refers to certain human concerns that are an inescapable part of a human being’s existence in the world.
Yalom refers to four such existential and ultimate concerns that all of us have to confront and engage with — (a) Death, (b) Freedom, © Existential Isolation, and (d) Meaninglessness. The entire corpus of existential psychodynamics is built on these four ‘ultimate’ concerns and how these concerns impact our role-taking, our well-being, and our pathologies. The existential psychodynamics get represented as:
However existential psychology as a field has not been so much invested over into as body of knowledge as classical Freudian psychology — perhaps the latter is relatively more grounded in positivist tradition, where empirical causal research is the method for building knowledge.
Nonetheless, existential psychodynamics was closely related to Humanistic psychology — and it is this bridge between existential psychology and humanistic psychology walked well known thinkers such as Rollo May, Viktor Frankl, George Kelly, Carl Rogers, Irvin Yalom, and Abraham Maslow. The journal of humanistic psychology also had Aldous Huxley on its editorial board, and in 1963 stated five basic postulates:
1. Man as a man supersedes the sum of his parts (and cannot be understood in a reductionist view of part functions).
2. Man has his ‘being’ in a human context. (I am quoting K S Narendran who in his usual poignancy once stated — that a man cannot be alive within the dead … the human context and the interpersonal element cannot be ignored)
3. Man is ‘aware’ (and cannot be understood by a psychology which fails to recognize man’s multi-layered self-awareness)
4. Man has a ‘choice’ (and is not a bystander to his existence but creates his own meaning)
5. Man is ‘intentional’ (and he has purpose, values, and meaning)
To the Sumedhas practitioner — these tenets are a part of the founding principles as laid down by Pulin Garg, and resonate within. However, Pulin has more or less been reticent as an academician — there are not many references or citations in his work to the existential psychodynamics or humanistic psychology.
The five tenets also resonate with Indian thought — and my own teachers — Raghu Ananthanarayanan and Ashok Malhotra have built on these founding principles — offering constructs, frameworks, and theories that integrate Indian thought.
The two strands often get intertwined as well and there are repercussions if one is not familiar with the two.
Working with Groups: Leveraging the Existential Psychodynamics Lens
Perhaps the greatest thinker on working with groups, and therapy-in-groups, has been Irvin Yalom. His works including The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy and Existential Psychotherapy are a must read for any group practitioner.
Yalom was the first analyst to point out that all human beings have to engage with the four ultimate concerns — including the therapist. He cites the tale of Mullah Nasruddin and search for the missing ring under the village lamppost as a reason why Freudian psychodynamics has proliferated. As he puts it — the working with existential concerns is a lot tougher, drearier, and desultory, and it is far easier for the therapist to shift to something ‘neurotic’, and one can do something about it.
It is these existential concerns including death and existential isolation that need to move away from the therapeutic dyad into a therapeutic group paradigm. Though the founders of group-therapy were Joseph Pratt, Trigant Burrow and Pail Schilder, it is the work of both Jacob L Moreno and Irvin Yalom that has made it accessible to people across the world.
So much so that the Avengers movie — the End Game depicted its super-powered characters having to resort to therapy in groups on themes of meaninglessness and existential isolation.
Often in a Sumedhas process lab — both in small and large groups, as a facilitator a group comes to the threshold of working on an existential ultimate concern. Very often a trigger is that of ‘death’ of a loved one or a parent — and the members of the group get in deep awareness of this ultimate concern. While most of us are trained on creating spaces for catharsis for the individual, it is difficult to explore and work with this concern — how it impacts each of us and our realities.
As I grow older and maybe the pandemic has been a catalyst — a concern that pre-occupies me is that of ‘meaninglessness’ — this concern is so challenging to work with for I see it in not only myself but in loved ones around me.
In the Sumedhian lore, meaning and purpose have been used interchangeably and yet very often the facilitator chooses to engage with the concern of meaninglessness from the following two stances:
a) The Cosmic Stance — where there is a reference to some design that exists outside of the person and superior to the person — invariably referring to a spiritual ordering of the universe — all this to explain away meaninglessness.
Most Sumedhians would have heard the word ‘Cosmos’ being used quite frequently but it is in the group space where this stance can create further meaninglessness, especially if the facilitator is blind to the dependency of the group member or caught in his / her omnipotence when it comes to connecting the existential dots in a cosmic manner.
b) The Personal / Secular Stance — where in the absence of ‘cosmic stance’, a human being has to enquire on how does one construct one’s own meaning.
Over the years, the cosmic stance (and heavily favored still by some facilitators) is slowly losing its sheen and there are some individuals who come to the Sumedhian space to discover some personal meaning — albeit at the risk of embracing nihilism.
Camus used the word ‘absurd’ to refer to the human aspiration or need for a moral code (and meaningfulness) and the world’s indifference to him / her. Thus what should I (or any member of the group) do — if there are no guidelines and no absolutes and nothing is more important than anything else.
The group thus becomes a space to explore and experiment with competing values, with absurdity and with no absolutes — that is perhaps why it becomes more important to work within a group. It may lead a member to re-calibrate a new meaning for self — it may lead to a member willing to confront the absurdity as well.
Working with Groups: Yalom’s Tenets or Therapeutic Factors
Yalom’s greatest offering to working with groups comes in the form of key tenets where the group becomes a more effective crucible or space as opposed to the therapist’s room. I think a large part of Sumedhian norms are inspired by Yalom’s constructs — though never stated — these create the scaffolding for the groups to work with some of existential imperatives.
Yalom very succinctly summarizes why the group as a space is more important — some of the therapeutic factors (originally termed curative factors but renamed therapeutic factors in the 5th edition of The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy (1st edition 1970, 5th edition 2005) have been presented below:
The recognition of shared experiences and feelings among group members and that these may be widespread or universal human concerns, serves to remove a group member’s sense of isolation, validate their experiences, and raise self-esteem. I have found this true of all groups.
The group is a place where members can help each other, and the experience of being able to give something to another person can lift the member’s self-esteem and help develop more adaptive coping styles and interpersonal skills.
· Instillation of hope
In a mixed group that has members at various stages of development or recovery, a member can be inspired and encouraged by another member who has overcome the problems with which they are still struggling.
· Corrective recapitulation of the primary family experience
Members often unconsciously identify the group therapist and other group members with their own parents and siblings in a process that is a form of transference specific to group psychotherapy. The facilitator’s interpretations can help group members gain understanding of the impact of childhood experiences on their personality, and they may learn to avoid unconsciously repeating unhelpful past interactive patterns in present-day relationships.
· Development of socializing techniques
The group setting provides a safe and supportive environment for members to take risks by extending their repertoire of interpersonal behaviour and improving their social skills. These boundary conditions are extremely critical for new socialization to take place and the facilitator cannot afford to be seen as evaluative and judgmental.
One way in which group members can develop social skills is through a modelling process, observing and imitating the facilitator and other group members. There is a risk of unconsciously mimicking the facilitator or a member of the group — but as long as it worked with — it allows individuals to look at new behaviours. For me personally, in my first group, I was drawn to the graciousness of a colleague — Mustafa Moochhala and see him as a role-model.
It has been suggested that this is the primary therapeutic factor from which all others flow. Humans are herd animals with an instinctive need to belong to groups, and personal development can only take place in an interpersonal context. A cohesive group is one in which all members feel a sense of belonging, acceptance, and validation.
Catharsis is the experience of relief from emotional distress through the free and uninhibited expression of emotion. When members tell their story to a supportive audience, they can obtain relief from chronic feelings of shame and guilt.
The Sumedhas offerings are very different from traditional group therapy settings — these offerings come in the form of labs that last between a week and a fortnight — where strangers get together and form groups within a larger community. Each group is co-held by two facilitators that create the boundary, safety, and the essential scaffolding for working in groups.
Therapy in groups has not been stated as the only purpose of such Sumedhian spaces — the original generation inspired by Pulin Garg — such as Ashok Malhotra for example looked at existential themes and concerns.
However, like most institutions, the nature of labs has changed, shifted, or even evolved. There are times when Freudian and Bionian imperatives are brought in by the facilitators to look at group and system psychodynamics; there are times when Eriksonian perspectives are leveraged within the institution to understand identity, and there are still times when death, existential isolation, freedom and meaninglessness are dialogue with.
I thought it important to map the underlying assumptions and axioms that differentiate the abovementioned work and for the institutional member to delve deeper into what working with groups implies. I do develop a metaphorical rash when I hear colleagues explain away process work as eclectic body of thought without actually investing into knowing more about what lies beneath.
This blog (and hopefully the next two blogs) was inspired by my need to go beyond Lewin and Bion, and to map individual strands that have built Sumedhian perspectives today.
If you have liked this long reading — please state it — it just makes it a wee more meaningful for me