Posts Tagged ‘internal discovery’

Ah, groups…

group dancingMost models of group development describe stages that the members and the group as a whole go through as part of the group lifecycle. The first stage has names like orientation, initial, beginning, pre-affiliation, inclusion, and forming. While the second stage has more dramatic names such as conflict, transitional, norm development, power and control, and storming.

During the first stage, group members tend to focus on establishing and sharing their personal goals for being a member, and beginning to find their roles within the group by looking to the behavior of others. Members often to feel anxious about belonging, wonder if they can trust the group especially with personal information, and they tend to enact their usual patterns when they meet new people which maybe somewhere along the continuum between withdrawn to extroversion. At this stage communication between group members tends to be superficial and focuses on giving and receiving advice (Mcphee & Gass, 1993).

At this time, it is important for group leaders to provide information that will help people decide if they want to be part of the group, establish structure and guidance for new skills, and provide support to individual members. The leaders can draw out commonalities and foster members developing personal connections with each other. Sub-groups may begin to form early on, so leaders should name and highlight the formation of any cliques that could exclude some members from full participation in the group. When the group has mastered these tasks, it will naturally move onto the next stage, although it could return here at any time.


group conflictThe second stage of group formation is one that often scares people, since it usually involves conflict. This could emerge among group members, between members and the leaders, or in relation to an outside group or concept. Conflict starts to emerge once most group members have determined that the group is a safe place and that it is worth investing in emotionally (Mcphee & Gass, 1993). People are committed to the group and now feel safe enough to pull back and reclaim some of their individual identity. Negative feelings like confusion and irritation may start to come to the surface and be expressed for the first time, communication may include criticism, and language about the way things “should” be.

The group must learn to navigate conflict successfully in order to become more cohesive and form deeper relationships. Many people are afraid of conflict and do their best to avoid it or distract themselves when they fear it may occur. This is be because of its potential for driving the group apart, as Mindell (2000) points out, “Unmitigated and unprocessed tension can lead to war just as easily as it can lead to the development of greater synergy and teamwork” (p. 42). However contradictory it may seem, avoiding conflict can actually stifle the very emotional growth and connection that group members seek. I have seen this proven time and time again in my own experience.

Conflict can come up around competition for attention or decision-making power. This is intimately linked to issues of rank which can be determined by race, ethnicity, education, gender, etc (Mindell, 1995).  Group members may become aware of the ways in which they have been using their power or ways they have felt oppressed by the power of others. Naming these dynamics can cause great resistance and conflict within a group as people fear potential retaliation or a loss of relationships within the group.

New behaviors may need to be negotiated to address group values more explicitly. The early roles and norms that have been established in a group may need to be reworked, which can cause conflict as people readjust to this changing context. Mindell (2000) writes, “All groups and organizations have beliefs, tendencies, philosophies and behaviors that they promote and others that they disapprove of, prohibit, repress or actively resist” (p. 43). Within this context, conflict can occur as people struggle to become more congruent with their own true selves. They may realize they have been behaving in ways that do not reflect their true wishes. Or through feedback from other group members, they may become aware of the consequences of patterns of previously established behavior.

One of the main ways that conflict manifests is through incongruencies within each individual, such as when people send one message with their words and another with their body language. Other group members pick up on these conflicting messages and react to them. However, conflict only becomes healthy and productive when the all parts of every group member are encouraged to express themselves and space is held for all of them (Mindell, 2000). Group leaders can help draw attention to these incongruencies and help group members to self-correct by explicitly bringing more parts of themselves to the group.


group cohesionYalom (2005) describes group cohesion as the fluctuating attraction that group members have for their group based on their relationship with other members, leaders and the group as a whole. High levels of cohesiveness improve the therapeutic outcome for group members and help to protect the group from internal and external threats to its integrity. There are several ways that group leaders and members can help to create norms that foster a sense of cohesion and the qualities that make for a successful therapeutic experience: trust, warmth, empathetic understanding and acceptance.

Groups high in cohesiveness help members to enter a reinforcing circle where they feel trust in other members, disclose personal information, receive empathy from other members, experience acceptance for their individual thoughts and experiences, which in turn leads to increased trust and further self-disclosure. This pattern allows group members to receive information about the accuracy of their self-perception, as the group may value them more or less than they value themselves. Since the group itself is perceived as helpful by the members, this discrepancy creates a dissonance that requires members to revise their beliefs about themselves and corresponding behavior.

According to Yalom (2005), the main tasks of the group leader are to create and maintain the group, build a group culture, and illuminate the here and now. Underlying these tasks is the need for a consistent positive relationship with all group members.   The leader should recognize and address any behavior that threatens group cohesiveness including attrition, cliques, scapegoating, etc. This will help to create a group culture that will foster therapeutic change in the members. The group norms that develop may be tacit or explicit and for or against certain behaviors. The leaders should be emotionally stable and model constructive ways of working through conflict including direct and heart-felt communication, individual processing of intense or difficult feelings, and non-defensiveness.



McPhee, P. & Gass, M. (1993). A group development model for adventure therapy programs in Gass, M.. Adventure Therapy: Therapeutic applications of adventure Programming (171-177). Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt.

Mindell, A. (1995). Sitting in the fire: Large group transformation using conflict and diversity. Portland, OR: Lao Tse Press.

Mindell, A. (2000). The leader as martial artist: Techniques and strategies for revealing conflict and creating community. Portland, OR: Lao Tse Press.

Yalom, I.D. & Leszcz, M. (2005). The theory and practice of group psychotherapy (5th ed.). New York, NY: Basic Books.

Basic Goodness

In different cultures basic aliveness is described as unconditional openness, spirit, basic goodness, harmony, Buddha nature, divine spark, true self, brilliant sanity. It has three main qualities: 1. Openness- to the endless possibilities of the present moment; 2. Clear Seeing- awake to what is without  bias or pre-conceptions; 3. Responsiveness- attunement, empathy, compassion, understanding, and sensitivity.

In my own search for an answer to the question of “what is basic aliveness” I began by considering animate objects and whether my aliveness resonated with their aliveness. Slowly I began to realize that basic aliveness can exist within me and resonate with other objects depending on the quality of the presence and intention that I bring to my experience with them, rather than something inherent to them. It seems to me that basic aliveness is how my energy reaches out to the world and interacts with objects in the present moment. I feel basic aliveness most when I’m not thinking about the past or future, when I am just curious and present with what is. As Hayward & Hayward (1998) point out, “We sometimes catch a glimpse of ordinary sacredness when we come across our familiar world freshly, as if for the first time” (p. 1).

Basic aliveness is a sense of wholesomeness that exists beneath all of the ups and downs of life. It does not imply happiness but rather that being alive has an energetic quality that infuses all of our experiences when we pay attention. Basic aliveness lets the world in and is the source of our vulnerability, tenderness, and sensitivity. Felt sense (subtle body sensations that contain feelings), feelings (these can remain in the background of awareness), and emotions (these cannot be ignored) arise in response to our aliveness interacting with the world around us.

Spectrum of felt energy:

In contrast, the cocoon is an unconscious boundary that we create within ourselves in order to protect ourselves from experiencing pain. This contracted cocoon state is a way of protecting ourselves from our vulnerabilities in the world by taking us out of the present moment. The cocoon is also an indication of basic health; since it is an important response to danger. This boundary becomes the way that our basic aliveness interacts with the world; the boundary allows presence in “safe” situations and pulls back from being present in “unsafe” situations.

However, the protective cocoon requires a tremendous amount of energy to maintain, as we are constantly aware of and reacting to potential threats and telling ourselves stories about who we are in order to keep the protective boundary in place.  Trungpa (1994) describes how “We shut out any vastness or possibilities of deeper perception out of our hearts by fixating on our own interpretation of phenomena… We always have a choice: we can limit our perception so that we close off vastness or we can allow vastness to touch us” (p. 102-103).

Psychological cocoons are composed of three elements, “the basic pain of feelings that seem threatening and overwhelming; the contracting of awareness to avoid the pain; and the stress of continually having to prop up and defend an identity based on this avoidance and denial” (Welwood, 1992, p. 161). I am struck by awkwardness and stupidity as sites of basic aliveness, I suppose that is why they are so uncomfortable; they brings us face to face with our own imperfections and give us the opportunity to accept ourselves as we are or to continue judging and rejecting our own experiences. We can use these uncomfortable moments to knock us into the present, as “times when we might find that we are suddenly free of our habitual ways of perceiving ourselves, other and the environment. They are times when we might tap into out inherent goodness” (Wegela, 1999, p. 77).

The tactic of the cocoon can eventually cause us distress when we realize that parts of ourselves and our world are cut off from us. As we become aware of this, we can choose to continue strengthening the cocoon or instead try out new ways of acting in the world. This slow process requires awareness, patience, and gentleness, as  “to be truly human in ordinary life requires a sense of bravery, daring to live genuinely, even in the face of obstacles like fear, doubt, depression or external aggression” (Hayward & Hayward, 1998, p.12).

There are three approaches to unraveling cocoons and helping emotions not get frozen and block our experience of basic aliveness: 1. Therapeutic- let feelings speak, personify them so they can express themselves freely without censorship; 2. Meditative- gently notice emotion and return to the breath without looking for meaning, this allows us to contain the energy of emotion and use it for self-illumination; 3. Taming- befriend emotions and let them be without judgment, feel deeply into the emotions under the associated thoughts and storylines.

Try this practice of taming emotions: begin by breathing and softly naming each experience as it comes into your awareness; body sensations and energy (tingling, itching, heat), feelings (fear, delight, anger), sights and sounds (ringing, cars, wind), thoughts (planning, remembering). Focusing on one thing at a time, name and fully feel in the body each experience that arises until it passes away, then return to the breath until something else arises. Simply acknowledge and feel into what is present in each moment without judgment, grasping or aversion.


Hayward, J. & Hayward, K. (1998). Sacred World: The shambala way to gentleness, bravery, and power. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications.

Trugpa, C. (1984). Shambala: The sacred path of the warrior. Boulder, CO: Shambala Publications.

Wegela, K.K. (1999, May) The scene of the accident. Shambala Sun. p. 77-78.

Welwood, J. (1992) The healing power of unconditional presence. In Welwood, J. (Ed.). Ordinary magic (p. 159-170). Boston, MA: Shambala Publications.

Walking Meditation

This mindfulness walking meditation focuses on body sensations and also adds an element of concentration that helps to focus the mind. I learned this type of walking meditation on a silent retreat with Eric Kolvig. The majority of the retreat was sitting body scan meditation with periods of interspersed walking meditation. This was my first multi-day silent retreat and I noticed that I began to develop an aversion to people who I didn’t know and had never spoken to. This walking meditation served to redirect my mind and helped me come more completely into my present experience.

I have since used the practice during many difficult times including intense physical activity or while experiencing strong emotions. I did an 11 day trek in Bolivia that went over 16,000 foot mountain passes almost every day. The walking itself was very difficult on steep rocky terrain. It was also a solitary experience since I only went with one other person, the trails were too thin to walk side by side, and there was no extra breath for speaking. This walking meditation helped to keep my mind focused, my feet moving and helped me see the beauty of the experience.

The technique involves counting each step sequentially starting at 1 each time until reaching 10 and then counting back down to 1. So for example, the steps would be counted like this:

1, 2
1, 2, 3
1, 2, 3, 4
1, 2, 3, 4, 5

This type of counting helps the mind to remain focused and can be very subtle if you are truly paying attention. For example you can notice which foot starts with 1 and how that alternates, and where different numbers fall within the pattern of the steps. At the same time, the meditator should feel the sensations of the legs and feet as well as noticing the surroundings.

This walking meditation technique fulfills all of the qualities of mindfulness practice in that it cultivates engaged attention to the present experience; it is based direct present moment sensory experience; it accepts the mind, emotions, body sensations and environment as they are without trying to change them; and it encourages direct investigation of the subtler aspects of the experience.

During practice, there are two main obstacles that can arise, the first is the mind wandering away and loosing track of the counting, in which case the meditator should gently bring it back. If the last number sequence can be remembered, the stepping and counting should resume where they left off. If the last number sequence cannot be remembered, walkers can start over with 1 or another number of their choosing. The other obstacle that can arise is an over-concentration on the counting to the exclusion of the direct sensory experience of walking or noticing the surroundings. When meditators notice that this has occurred, they can gently bring their attention back to their legs and feet or to the sights, sounds, scents or textures of their environment.

This practice is especially useful for people who are restless or have difficulty sitting still; are experiencing strong emotions, sensations or pain; or are having trouble slowing, calming or redirecting their thoughts. It can allow strong body sensations or thoughts to be experienced and accepted without allowing them to become overwhelming. It is also a nice way to vary sitting meditation, by providing time outdoors and a little bit of exercise.

Meditating in unchartered territory

I recently did a 10 day silent Vipassana meditation retreat in Cochabamba Bolivia, in the tradition of S.N. Goenka. The best way that I can think to describe it is like a long trek with several difficult climbs that are endless, frustrating, and painful as well as other moments that are peaceful, breathtaking and provide new viewpoints for life. When the retreat was over I immediately forgot all about the hardships and began dreaming about doing a longer one, perhaps for 30 or 45 days.

Unlike some other types of meditation, the Vipassana taught by Goenka is a highly practical body scan technique that makes use of mindful breathing to focus the mind but not as the object of the meditation. Nor does the technique use mantras or visualizations; instead the main object of meditation is the body sensations that arise. The first three days of the retreat focus on practicing the technique of anapana meditation which involves concentrating on the sensation of breathing around the nose. The following 7 days provide instruction and practice in observing body sensations. Each meditation session is framed by Goenka’s chanting in a style that is strange to unaccustomed ears but becomes an important source of nourishment on the retreat.

The course was given by tape in Goenka’s Indian accent along with an excellent Spanish translation. The evening dharma talks were lucid and witty, full of illustrative anecdotal stories from India. My favorite one was about his teacher Sayagyi U Ba Khin who served as Auditor General of Burma and instituted a successfully strict plan to reduce corruption including Vipassana meditation courses for all public employees. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if more governments tried this approach!

The talks were based on the unstoppable repetition of three main points:

  1. Morality- adhering to the 5 basic precepts including not killing, not lying, not stealing, etc.
  2. Taming the mind- through a single-minded focus on observing the breath
  3. Equanimity- training the mind to remain balanced by not reacting to any thought or bodily sensation, which little by little over time will teach the mind not to react with craving or aversion to any experience

The meal bell conditioned us all like Pavlov’s dogs and mealtimes were a great litmus test of our progress in equanimity. Watching the bowls empty from the back of the line was a very concrete lesson in anicca.

I calculate that during the ten days, we spent over 100 hours meditating, 60 hours sleeping, 30 hours resting after meals, 20 hours eating, and 10 hours listening to dharma talks. This schedule was daunting at first but I found that I quickly became accustomed to low-level tiredness and hunger. They became the least of my worries as the mind careened around, thinking about various topics including:

  • When will that woman next door stop yelling at every member of her household including the dogs? And can I specifically request that my dana donation be used to invite that woman to participate in the course next year?
  • At least this Shakira remix will drown out her yelling for a moment (although isn’t Shakira going through a bad moment professionally, she had so much more integrity during Pies Descalzos). Oh no not Kylie Minogue, I won’t be able to concentrate for the rest of the day!
  • What if I design a year-long program for kids who are at risk of dropping out of school, I could base it on Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. Each month would be based on recognizing and fostering a different type of intelligence so that every child could identify and build on their strengths…

And some of the techniques that I tried to get my mind to focus included:

  • Friendliness- hey dude, let’s just sit down here together and meditate for a while, it will be fun, yeah?
  • Bargaining-  if you concentrate now, I’ll let you think about multiple intelligences for 5 minutes at the end of the hour. Ok, I’ll let you sing Can’t Get You Out of My Mind for 2 minutes now if you promise to concentrate afterwards
  • Sternness and threats- you get back here right now or I’ll make you sit in the lotus position for the next hour. Here, now, pay attention!
  • Begging- please, please, please just concentrate until the bell rings, we’ve got to get through the next 15 minutes anyway we can

If you’re in Bolivia or anywhere else in the world for that matter, find out when the next retreat is, you won’t regret the steps you take on this journey of a thousand miles.

Recommendations for before you go:

  1. Read the main S.N. Goenka Vipassana meditation website carefully
  2. Walk a lot, preferably plan to go on a multi-day trek in the week beforehand so that your body will find it easier to sit for 10 days with very little exercise. I did the 3 day Choro trek and found that it really helped
  3. Familiarize yourself with some essential concepts including:
    • the three trainings: sila, samadhi, pañña
    • the three jewels: Buddha, dhamma, sangha
    • the three characteristics of phenomena: anicca, anatta, dukkha
    • the five aggregates: ripa, viññana, sañña, vedana, sankhara
  4. If you want you could also look up these additional concepts:
    • the noble eight fold path
    • the ten parami
    • metta
  5. Pack according to the given list and make sure to take flip-flops for wearing after showers and to and from the dharma hall; hand sanitizer, echinacea or other things to help you avoid getting sick when sharing tight space with many other people; hair bands for people with long hair to keep it off your face during meditation (you won’t need any additional itchy sensations); warm socks and polar fleece blanket to keep warm during 4am sittings; large shawl or wrap to use while resting in the grass between sessions; and mosquito repellent and after bite lotion.