The Brilliance of a Circle and Nature: Working with Group Dynamics in the Wilderness
A group of people sitting in a circle in the wilderness is an image we can all imagine, have seen, and/or been a part of. It's a powerful image. Why is this such a powerful image? It is something that has been going on for centuries. There is inherent wisdom, not only in the act of sitting in a circle and being a part of a group but also in what the magical element of the wilderness provides to this already rich experience.
I sat in a circle throughout most of my graduate program. To those that know that I attended Naropa University for my Master's in Contemplative Psychotherapy, this is not a surprise. Our training essentially involved consistent group work for three years with the same individuals. I often describe this experience as The Wisdom of No Escape. This is also the title of one of Pema Chodron's books. There is something significant I experienced about having to face what came up for me without an easy escape. Because of my being a part of a group and working together with this group, my patterns, tendencies, and desires came alive. I, therefore, had to look at it all. (I didn't have to, but I chose to because I wanted to learn.) Something similar comes up for our students in the wilderness. They don't have to look at themselves, but being in the wilderness, it becomes hard not to see and experience their raw sense of self. The group is a mirror for this. And the wilderness provides a mirror for this. The consistency provides the intensity and opportunity to re-pattern. The instructors and therapist provide the guidance, support, and path to relating to this wisdom—the innate goodness, the information, the patterns. Ultimately, that is what it is. There is true wisdom in being in a situation where one cannot "hide" anymore from themselves. Their true selves are revealed through the magnificence of the wilderness, their interpersonal relationships, and the group dynamic. It is our job as professionals and programs to create a soft place for these students to land. Then the brilliance of what occurs in groups can begin.
What I believe is unique to Blue Ridge Therapeutic Wilderness are the mountains that serve as our foundation and platform are massively beautiful, old, nurturing mountains. These mountains and our field area exude a soft healing space that seems to envelop our students. The Blue Ridge Mountains are the soft places students get to land. And from this, an even richer group experience gets to come alive.
Sitting in a circle, in and of itself, is vulnerable. You are facing other people; and that, again in and of itself, means that something internally begins to occur that couldn’t have occurred otherwise. There is something about sitting in a circle, that automatically invites a person to be more present with their internal world—their bodies, thoughts, feelings—their inner wilderness. In a circle (group), you are a part of it; you are exposed. You belong, no matter what; even if you think you don’t belong. There is an unspoken invitation to be present, to show up. There is a possibility for healing and leaning into what gets to be seen, felt, and heard. The minute someone sits in a circle (is within a group), many things begin to happen—for other people, for the individual, and therefore, for the “group field.” John Heider (1985) describes the group field as, paying “attention to the silence. What is happening when nothing is happening in a group” is the group field (p. 21). People’s speech and actions are the content of the group, however, what is occurring in the in-between spaces reveals the group's essential mood. In working with groups, a facilitator will work to flush out what lies beneath the surface, embrace silence sophisticatedly as it is full of information, create connections, and illuminate patterns and roles.
In wilderness, there are many ways in which group dynamics are at play: in official groups on a psychoeducational topic, process or "here-and-now" groups, group activities and chores, and the simple fact that there is a community of people together in the wilderness moving through the day with a plan.
It is my belief that often we are being driven by what is unconscious within us. What underlies our behaviors, thoughts, and feelings is often driven by unconscious or even conscious beliefs, thoughts, feelings, experiences. In order to move toward health, it seems essential to know how to bring what is unknown, to the more known, and learn about how to be with ourselves with love and compassion, and to create different experiences for ourselves. Group experiences offer opportunities for learning, illuminating wisdom and understanding, and creating experiences that individuals have been longing for. Often, students are not even aware that they have been longing for these experiences. Once it happens—once a student feels validated through a reflective statement, something significant occurs. This is a pivotal point in someone's internal system where the door to feeling safe opens, feeling more willing happens, seeds of resilience are planted, and tolerance of discomfort increases. It is not just because of this interpersonal connection that makes this important or pivotal. It is because this connection happened amidst a group. This is what makes that moment all that much more powerful. The group field becomes energized with each individual having a feeling or thought about what they witnessed. This is also where there are limitless opportunities to go into learning even more about other group members and reveal their own patterns, wisdom, or feelings that will most likely be essential information for moving forward in their lives and in their own work.
Louis R. Ormont (1992), an internationally renowned group therapist describes five ways in which group work can benefit people:
Group elicits old patterns of behavior.
How someone shows up in relationship outside of wilderness is likely to show up that way in their group in wilderness. Groups will draw out individual's patterns of behavior, old feelings, thoughts, etc. Engaging with the wilderness and all that it provides will also draw out old patterns of behavior. We want to see what this looks like, so we can understand a student better. I often find myself saying to families, "I want to see what the old destructive patterns are so that we can get in there and help a student work through them in a way that is more sustainable and productive in his life."
Possibilities of addressing old ways of being are available. Students get to practice putting their thoughts and feelings into words in a way that their unconscious world can be more revealed. Hidden parts of themselves get to be seen and supported. Parts of themselves that feel shame get to be unlocked and met with love and transformation. A student receives the gift of being heard by many about something they perhaps have never shared before. This experience of being seen and heard by many in the containment of a group and the wilderness is irreplaceable. It has the potential to cut straight through to the wound and allow healing to occur.
Groups enable the [students] to see how others respond to them.
In seeing how others respond to oneself, a person receives information on how they are showing up in their life and how they may be having an impact on others. Members of the group learn tools in giving and receiving feedback. Members of the group become mirrors for each other. This is not to be confused with the fact that how another group member responds is completely that individual's responsibility and may actually be more about them than the person they are responding to. Whatever the case, there is yet another opportunity to learn about self and other. This benefit can translate to somebody working through family system roles and struggles. How someone might be responding to a student may be similar to a family member. Being a part of a group helps students to understand how they are coming across; they then have the opportunity to look at how congruent they are being within themselves.
Groups afford [students] diverse views of their behavior.
Whatever spontaneously arises within the group is information. It can be used to further understanding of self or other or facilitate a connection that could not have been formed otherwise. The group experience gives students the benefit of not one but a variety of reactions—spontaneous reactions occur in the moment. No matter the reaction or response, it will evoke key roles, figures, and experiences that likely connect to something or someone outside the group that will be important to understand.
Group treatment affords the opportunity for on-the-spot self-definition.
Students get to learn how they come across, how they look, and what they feel when relating to others. Interpersonal patterns will show themselves in the here and now in a group setting and the relationships that are occurring. Group work offers students an opportunity for "spontaneous introspection, [and] it enables people to label and capture their truly actuating feelings and motives" (Ormont, p. 39, 1992). Moment to moment, something is occurring. Bringing mindfulness to the moment aids to great benefit in self-awareness, ability to practice a skill, and/or connect with someone in a new way. "The rationale for using the here-and-now rests upon a couple of basic assumptions: 1.) the importance of interpersonal relationships and 2.) the idea of therapy as a social microcosm" (Yalom, 2002).
Groups afford the chance to practice new behavior.
Students are provided the opportunity to practice doing something different in relationship to themselves and others. Instead of shutting down when feeling their sadness, they may be invited to allow others to bare-witness to their sadness. In that moment, something is happening is potentially different: the student is validating their own emotion, expressing their own emotion, and allowing others to be in relationship with this emotion. An incredible amount of "re-patterning" can occur in just this instance. And this is one of hundreds or thousands of instances that can occur that will contribute to core restructuring of self. Examples of "life situations" will occur within a group in the wilderness, and students get a chance to embrace the situation in a new way.
Having group awareness, and being able to manage and intervene in a thoughtful and sophisticated way is no small feat. Challenging feelings and roles can occur in groups, and it is important to help bring skills and understanding to these feelings and roles. Group work is always occurring, even with the complement of the deeper individualized work and individual therapy that is happening. It is all connected. We are all interconnected, whether we like it or not. We all have an impact. The group out in the wilderness is a microcosm of our society and world. How we interact with the person in front of us at that moment makes a difference. How a group of individuals is supported, talked to, and challenged makes a difference. When a group first comes together, no matter who the person is, what their background is, there is boundless wisdom waiting to be discovered. There is a plethora of inherent wisdom longing to be revealed. It is our job to step in and be of service to help make connections, create experiences, and then create space for integration. It is no small feat and certainly not something to overlook. And it is what, in my opinion, saves lives.
I have trained in and been a participant in many small and large group experiences throughout my career. Many parts of myself were revealed through this process; they were revealed through the relationships with the people in the group and our instructors as well as the “container” or environment that was created. Our students have the “container” of the wilderness—this awe-some environment that will challenge individuals, reflect back to individuals who they are, and invite individuals to see beauty (and what our students don’t know yet, it’s that the beauty they end up seeing is actually a reflection of themselves.).
I will leave you with this poem written by my dear friend, Wendy Havlir Cherry.
There is too much to lose
when you don’t trust your fire.
Let it light the way,
into your wilderness.
Chispa, which means "lively" or "spark," reminds me of the coal that students strive for in bow drilling (one of the common hard skills learned in wilderness). All of the effort, attention, presence, challenge inherent in building a bow drill set and working toward getting a coal is revealing of oneself. When this spark happens—when the Chispa appears—it can often be a symbol of hope, movement, life force, and our fire within! As my friend says in her poem, "There is too much to lose when you don't trust your fire." These students have too much to lose in their own brilliant lives. It is our job to help them trust their own life force again and their own fire. Group work helps light a larger flame that will illuminate their internal wilderness. It can help spark, in a way that couldn't have been created otherwise, a feeling of warmth again, strength or confidence, or a pattern of self-doubt that needs attention. The power of group is that it can connect us as human beings back to our life force—what I believe, on some level, we are all striving toward whether we are aware of it or not. Illuminating human experience and helping each other wake up to the present moment is part of what contributes to healing. Let the "chispa" light our way into the openness of ourselves through the openness that occurs in circles. Let our students thrive through this wisdom.
Heider, John. (1985). The Tao of Leadership. Humanics New Age, Atlanta, GA.
Ormont, Louis R. (1992). The Group Therapy Experience: From Theory to Practice. St. Martin’s Press, New York.
Yalom, Irvin D. (2002). The Gift of Therapy. HarperCollins Publishers.
Cherry, Wendy Havlir (2017). The Reach Is (W)holy. Self published. Columbia, SC.