Did you know that peril and experiential share a common root? I found that per means "to lead across, to pass over” (through listening to David Van Nuys interview Aftab Omar). And whether you call it transformative education (their title), integral education, or experiential education, there is personal risk involved when we go across, or pass over to new ways of thinking and experiencing oneself, such as when one deeply engages in a "whole person" learning environment like CIIS.
On a recent Saturday we had a double session of our group dynamics class that was magical. Conflicts were aired in a spirit of truth and compassion, interpersonal risks were taken, and we often found ourselves (and especially I found myself) in a space of not knowing or understanding how resolution would occur, when we hadn’t yet crossed over, and were in the messy middle. However, the day ended with a depth of communion, mutual appreciation, and awe. I know that this experience, which for us came through a T-group format, is not unique to this group or to ICP or CIIS, but I do love those times when students/classes allow themselves to fall apart and come together in this way. (A T-Group in an interpersonal learning group in which students practice "telling the truth with compassion"--sharing their authentic emotional responses to each other and practicing receiving feedback.)
When we engage wholeheartedly in an educational experience, the chances are that we're going to become unsettled. Sometimes it’s a minor disturbance wherein we need to find some way to contain or soothe ourselves, and sometimes it's a much more major disturbance, in which we feel our whole world is turning upside down and inside out at the same time. In the ICP program, the T-group (Group Dynamics MCP 5604) provides an opportunity for people to embrace the tumult, inviting them to become someone new.
What happens for some is found in the overused but apt comparison of personal change to the metamorphosis undergone as the caterpillar becomes the butterfly. In particular, I'm thinking of the initial stage in which in essence, the caterpillar melts into a cellular "soup" in which only DNA strands remain intact. On the human level, if we truly open ourselves to transformation, it can be terrifying: familiar bearings are lost, known ways of self-soothing can vanish, and our relational world can feel chaotic.
Yes, the T-group “takes away,” but it also gives. When it's working well, group members create a challenging yet protective space, akin to the cocoon, where one can dissolve and where one can “pass over," can start to come together again. Just as we were shaped (for better or for worse) by the reflections of our caregiving environment as we were growing up, so we can draw on the mirroring offered by our groupmates to grow into a more resilient, more open, free, and less defensive self.
The main vehicle of change in the T-group, quite simply, is emotional honesty. Members are asked to acknowledge what is real for them in relation to others, be it boredom, jealousy, hurt feelings, anger, attraction...and to risk letting others know this. In this process, people get the opportunity to act differently than their norm, by openly sharing raw emotions and not being protective, vague, or not quite honest with their classmates. The recipient gets practice in hearing often uncomfortable feedback about the impact they have on others, and practice in registering and responding to this feedback in as open and non-reactive a manner as possible. Over time, with consistent practice, people come to what I consider a Buddhist like appreciation of the transitory nature of feelings - that they are not who we really are.
I’ll begin closing with a brief discussion of one more area where it’s possible to cross over/transform within the t-group experience. The area is diversity inquiry. Most incoming ICP students consider themselves “open, liberal, kind and thoughtful people," and they are. Most have had some training about diversity in their academic or work life. But fewer have been engaged in raw, open, and productive dialogue on issues of difference. I find many of us to be relatively unconscious in relation to issues of our privilege and of the subjective realities of others' race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, etc. For a person to hear directly what it's like for someone else (a person whom they believe to know and understand) to describe their subjective experience as a marginalized or oppressed person shakes up comfortable and familiar frames.
When genuinely engaging in these conversations, the inner “cellular soup” experience is often manifested outwardly. It's easy to feel like one is "all thumbs" when things get messy, as one attempts to speak sensitively, yet honestly. It’s particularly challenging to live the fundamental principle of ICP T-groups, which is “speak the truth with compassion." (Learn more by reading “Speaking from the Heart,” by Brant Cortright, Michael Kahn, and Judye Hess.)
In any one encounter, a person identified within the dominant culture may find themselves defensive, and reluctant to truly open to their own or others’ realities. The person in the marginalized position may be understandably reluctant to trust and reveal layers of protections which have served them in surviving an unconscious, or racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or able bodied, or…fill in the blank…environment. The risks are high, the rewards are uncertain, yet this work seems necessary if we want experiential, integrative education.
My final closing is to acknowledge and thank my most recent T-group class and all the previous groups who have borne with me as I’m learning this craft, and who have given me so much insight and inspiration. I love this work.