We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the centre hole
that makes the wagon move.
We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we value.
Tao te Ching, 11.
Pay attention to the silence.
What's happening when nothing is happening in a group?
This is the group field.
Thirteen (or 30) people sit in a circle,
but it is the climate, the spirit in the centre of the circle where nothing is happening
that determines the nature of the group field.
People's speech determines the content.
But it is the silence, the empty space
that reveals the group's essential energy.
Tao of Leadership, 11.
The second of these quotes was written twenty-five years ago by my longtime friend, John Heider. The first, by Lao Tzu, 2500 years ago! Truths endure. For twenty years I would happily make the trek to meet with my friend, once, occasionally twice a year, to participate in his ongoing groups. These travels took me to California, Florida, and more recently and enduringly, Kansas. And the question occurred more than once (even to me!): what's the magic that would take me thousand's of kilometers to sit for three, sometimes five or even seven days, in a circle of a dozen or so folks -- mostly in silence, just listening?
During our short feedback session, wrapping up Saturday's silent retreat of a few weeks ago, and hearing about the experiences of many of the participants, I was reminded once again that, indeed there is something very special about the group space. One can sit, eyes closed, breathing -- anywhere. One can walk slowly back and forth or round in circles -- anywhere. Or stretch. . . or balance. But something is different in the circle.
'Alone . . . but not alone' was the way in which one of us described her experience. Sitting in one's own, 'protected' space -- but surrounded by like-mindedness, experiencing a shared purpose, focus. Coming into a group, particularly a large and unfamiliar gathering, it's typically the uncertainties, the anxieties that dominate. One often feels alone . . . and most distinctly cut off from the other people. Perhaps this is projection -- but I don't think so. I frequently find myself, 'taking the temperature' of the assemblage, seeing where I fit in, wondering how I measure up, if I'll be accepted (or, in the catastrophic, ignored, even shunned). All distractions, usually contrived in my own apprehension; and certainly detracting from the experience. Being welcomed merely for walking into the room and sitting down is a unique experience.
Close beside this observation were various comments on the shift in the 'social climate' that many noticed. The ease of not talking leveled the playing field for some. Coming into a group, knowing few if any, often applies a particular and peculiar social pressure, amplifying one's natural style, temperament. The shy may become more withdrawn, awkward, uncomfortable; the gregarious, more ebullient, engaging, launching into hyper-social mode. We, in short become caricatures of ourselves, displaying only those extremes of our personality that, in more familiar conditions, have the 'corners rounded off' a bit. When 'small talk' becomes 'no talk', these extremes too are muted; the need, compulsion, reflex to participate thru' speech -- be it witty, sage, self-conscious, or forced (or, God forbid, boring!) -- is removed. And we can let go of the 'dance' that preoccupies and steals our attention.
Many commented on the 'life lessons' -- more life reminders -- arising from walking the labyrinth. Even the luxury that walking in silence affords, of noticing one's thoughts, feelings, sensations (good and bad -- if I'm allowed an evaluative comment) around the simplest of experience, proved to be something of a revelation for some. Impatience, frustration, a (social) sensitivity to 'holding things up' (and the ever in the wings, ever so Canadian apology for same); the urgency to finish, the delay in start, the 'should I pass or slow down' -- all were noticed. . . and quietly resolved or considered or just allowed. Action becomes reflection. 'Fixing', addressing becomes tolerance (maybe!). And we 'sit with' (or in this instance, walk with) a situation, waiting for it to evolve and change (as it most certainly will), released from the compulsion to act on it or even against it.
Metaphors presented to some. Observing the 'illusion' of being behind -- or ahead -- of another, as the labyrinth's track circled back on itself, changed direction, became more central or more peripheral. And applying that observation to the often 'competitive' value we take into life situations; the measuring of how I'm doing in a comparative way ("if I'm ahead of so and so, I must be OK, right?"); instead of the intra-individual (the within self) perspective. The luxury of going at one's own pace.
And finally, trust. Consider the last time you sat in a group of twenty-nine other people, awake and alert -- with your eyes closed, no need or expectation to explain or account for one's behaviour or choices.
I think I know why I found John's groups so compelling, such a pull. These values and others all lived in the 'hole at the centre', in the group field.