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Building Community

In therapy, early experiments in group work were pioneered by psychiatrist Wilfred Bion at the Tavistock Institute - what became known as the Tavistock Model.

Experiences in group therapy can be mystical. There can be a loosening of the "ego boundaries". Participants can do things that they might not voluntarily do and can then replicate them later in their lives, when they choose to do so, e.g. to see that enemies and family members all play roles for us, and we for them, in the order of things.

This brings the possibility for group resolution. It is possible for a group of people to acknowledge their differences, set them aside, and still love each other. This brings a tremendous feeling of joy. This is the joy of community. Like lesser kinds of happiness, the joy of community is only a by-product. Simply seeking happiness, you will be unlikely to find it. Seek to create and love without regard to your happiness and you will likely be happy much of the time. Seeking joy in itself will not bring it to you. Do the work of creating community and you will obtain it - although never exactly according to your schedule. Joy is an uncapturable, yet utterly predictable side effect, of genuine community. There is a healing power in the joy of genuine community.

The Beginnings of Community

Genuine communities of a sort often develop in response to crisis. The problem is that once the crisis is over so, nearly always, is the community. The collective spirit leaves people as they return to their ordinary individual lives and community is lost. Yet community is so beautiful that the time of crisis is often mourned.

The Chinese word for crisis, consists of two parts: one represents "danger" and the other "hidden opportunity". Certainly we should like our lives to be ones of daily opportunity. Moreover, there is a profound although little understood reality of psychological health. Contrary to what many might believe, the healthy life is hardly one marked by the absence of crises. In fact, an individual’s psychological health is distinguished by how early he or she can meet and deal with crisis. The healthy life consists of meeting and resolving crises as early as possible so that we can get on with the next one. Oddly, the best measure of psychospiritual health is how many crises we can cram into a life time.

In fact, all psychological problems can be seen as crisis of the human spirit. We do not have to manufacture crises in our lives, we merely have to recognise that they exist. We must recognise that we live in a time in which our need for community has itself become critical. But we have a choice. We can keep pretending that this is not so. We can continue refusing to face the crisis until the day when we individually and collectively destroy ourselves and our planet. We can avoid community until the end or we can wake up to the drama of our lives and begin to take the steps necessary to save them.

Also, we sometimes fall into community by accident, even when there is no apparent crisis.

Knowing that community can result out of a crisis or by accident, the real challenge is this:

  • Can community be built in a workshop by deliberate design?
  • Can a group be lead in such a manner that the leader could know that the miracle of community would predictably happen again?

The answer to both questions is yes.

Community By Design

I have referred to community as a miracle. Almost by definition we do not think of miracles as being predictable or controllable. Rather, they are extrusions of the extraordinary into the ordinary. In our society, the occurrence of community is still rare, an extraordinary happening in the ordinary course of things. A miracle is also defined as a phenomenon not explainable by natural law. That does not mean that they are unlawful, perhaps that they obey laws that we generally and currently do not understand.

The following aspects of community occur in community building workshops with sufficient frequency for them to be regarded as basic to the design and building of community:

  • Whenever a group functions in accord with certain quite clear laws or rules it will become a genuine community.
  • The principles of good communication are the basic principles of community building.
  • It is possible that a group may unconsciously stumble onto the rules of communication or community and not have to consciously learn these rules.
  • The rules of communication and community building can be taught and learned with relative ease.
  • They are best learned experientially.
  • Virtually any group of people can form themselves into a genuine community.

So, what are these rules? They can best be elucidated by describing the stages of the community making process. With the knowledge of these rules, demanding though they are, it may no longer be so pardonable to yearn for community without doing something about it.

Groups assembled deliberately to form themselves into community routinely go through these stages in the process: