Working in the Integral We-Space

As is often the case, new learning and insight comes from talking to friends. This came about from talking to A. with whom I’ve often spoken about various aspects of trauma. I have no professional background in trauma. I’ve “only” suffered it and worked some of it through. As it’s turned out, what has been helpful for me has largely been  . . . we-spaces!

What has helped me has been safety and clarity in a group space. Surprisingly these have helped some aspects of my own difficulty to heal by itself. I like this idea of things healing by themselves; in fact I’m suspicious by nature of overt attempts to heal or even to help another. There’s an implied superiority of the helper in that which breeds resistance on the part of the helpee. Healing, in my experience, doesn’t come from these roles. It happens below the roles, from a stratum in which participants are equally learners. It’s the result of a shared inquiry in which each person takes what they want and can from the interaction.

The possibility of this requires a transparent space with clear boundaries and expectations for each member. Here’s a model of how that might work, as I understand it today.

The three components of our internal system are I (the self), you or thou (the other, whether singular or collective) and it (the witnessing, observer self). These three are implicitly present in each human interaction though they may not be named or in consciousness.

So there’s “I,” me having an experience that involves something of the other. We’re in a relational space. I am always in relationship. There is the other that, from its point of view, also is an “I” for which I am its other. There is a relationship and that relationship has a quality that is sensed by us as a feeling. The observer self is the one that notes that feeling and may also have a sense of what needs to be done to move that feeling forward. Feelings commonly have direction and movement built into them. It’s part of what they are. They’re dynamic like a part of a story and imply that more.

These three are a part of all interactions and they also mimic, or echo, the early childhood situation: child, other (usually parents), and the developing self-sense. Every time we’re in a group situation, that early situation is re-activated somewhat. We may have fully “healed” and moved beyond that early childhood situation in which case our internal representation  of the the I-you-it triad has moved on. But to the extent that it hasn’t we’ll be restrained by the limitation of our early experience.

If the group space is very “clean,” then tension and difficulty in the early childhood dynamic can be eased by working the present relationships in the group space. It’s not necessary to mention the childhood dynamic at all.

In almost all conventional relational interactions the dynamic between I-you-it is not up for discussion, examination or change. Yet these three are always present in the group though they’re not usually in consciousness. Our common socially approved way is to not bring this up to awareness. But we can in special group spaces for this purpose.

The relationship between I-you-it can be reconfigured in such spaces. In fact, this starts to happen any time there’s any increase in the safety and permission between I and you.

There’s no practical limit to the degree of safety and permission that can be experienced in the group. The limiting factor is the depth of agreement that the members have.

Depth of agreement is not a simple matter because much of the agreement, like the tacit silence and invisibility of the witness, is not in awareness. There’s already a contract in place. But we don’t see it and, to a greater or lesser extent, we’re “triggered” when it comes up. We don’t know what to do because our default operating instruction has been interrupted.

I started off speaking of trauma and my conversation with A. Can trauma be addressed with a safe-enough group, where the relational agreement is strong and clear enough?

I believe it can. There’s no need to put trauma into a separate box from other experience. In my view it’s at the end of a continuum that we all are part of. We all have thoroughly undigested material that will, to some extent, trigger us when it comes up. Nor is trauma thoroughly resident in individuals. If a family member suffers from trauma, each family member has it in their system. Everyone has to accommodate it within their internal system. Think for example of the case where a family member takes her own life. Everyone has to work with that – or thoroughly bury it in which case it remains in the “trauma” category.

What would make a group safe enough for trauma or the whole range of human experience to be worked with?

The key qualities are safety and permission as in any good group. But these have to be unpacked and clarified. Part of that clarification is to make explicit a map of what is happening so that each member of the group is following the same map.

This is central and almost never, in my experience, fully seen. We assume that each person is operating out of a same map – we’d like it to be so – but they’re not.

Part of the map then, is the realization that we each have a different map. Start with that and everything that comes after be built on that.

But at a meta-level, one step up, there are common elements and these can be made explicit. They provide a language for discussion. The common elements that are shared among the members of the group are the I, the experience of other and the experience of it.

Every situation has this. Every situation is a relationship and every relationship has, from the inside, self and other (whether the other be individual or collective). It also has an outside, the witness or observer. Each of these is inherently there. They’re not a religious or philosophical mantle that is cast over anything.

So practically, we make room for the experience of these three. We draw the group’s attention to them, while knowing that each individual will instantiate them in a unique way that we can neither predict nor “know better than.”

To work in this way, there needs to be some practice and prior proof of good-will and intention. In keeping with this requirement, the group should be closed to new people for its duration and the duration should be specified.

There is room for anyone with any level of screwed-upness who wants to work it out to do so if there’s a clear enough space for them to do so. The evolutionary impulse in the individual will see the opportunity  and use it.