Last week, I had a unique opportunity to travel to Sedona to support a 5-day retreat and working session. A business development consulting company was gathering their team for a two day retreat, and then was offering a brand new, one-of-a-kind program where a client joined them on retreat for three days and was taken through an intense process of visioning and business development. By the end of the three days, the intention was for the client to leave with a new website and business plan. This meant that they were doing all of the writing, logo design, website development, and photography on-site in a really intense period of time.
The owner of the consulting company had the foresight to bring me in to help hold the space, host circle, and take the process to a deeper level. Though we didn’t articulate all of these things ahead of time, I was also there to do some coaching, help the client through some blocks when they came up, ground them in the soul of the place when things got crazy, and create ceremony in support of what was being done (ie. smudging, release ceremony, labyrinth walking, etc.).
None of us really knew what to expect in this uncharted territory, and some of the things that came up were surprising for all of us. There was one thing I knew, though… in this kind of intense environment, the shadow is sure to show up.
“We’re excited to begin,” I said the first day, when we gathered in circle together, “but there are some things worth considering even in our excitement and anticipation. Know this – at some point this week, things will get uncomfortable. The shadow will show up in the group. Suddenly, you’ll discover you don’t like each other as much as you thought you did, and you might not even like yourself. Little things will get on your nerves and you’ll get frustrated and restless and you may be tempted to walk away.”
“I know it will be uncomfortable, but, if you stick with it, that discomfort will help you grow. In the end, it can make this team stronger than it ever was.”
Within a few days, true to form, the shadow was there in both obvious and not-so-obvious ways. What seemed easy at the beginning started to feel hard. The relationships that seemed solid at the beginning started to feel a little wobbly. Good work and lots of learning and stretching was being done, but there was an undercurrent that couldn’t be denied. Some of that had to do with the newness of the experiment and some had to do with the intensity of trying to get the work done in a shared space.
We didn’t have a lot of time for processing what went on while we were still together, but I’ve continued to think about it since and will continue to reflect back on it with my client.
Every time I witness this kind of shadow showing up in a group, I think back to my first trip to Africa. It was an intense time, traveling in a place of heart-breaking poverty with a group of 12 people I didn’t know. That experience became, for me, a microcosm of what it means to build a community.
Fortunately, a friend had recommended the book A Different Drum, by M. Scott Peck a few months before my trip and that helped me process what happened while we were together. In the book, Peck talks about the four stages of community.
At the beginning, there is pseudocommunity when people are extremely pleasant with each other and avoid disagreement. “People, wanting to be loving, withhold some of the truth about themselves and their feelings in order to avoid conflict. Individual differences are minimized, unacknowledged, or ignored. The group may appear to be functioning smoothly but individuality, intimacy, and honesty are crushed.”
The second stage is chaos, when individual differences start to surface. “The chaos centers around well-intentioned but misguided attempts to heal and convert. Individual differences come out in the open and the group attempts to obliterate them. It is a stage of uncreative and unconstructive fighting and struggle. It is no fun.”
If people dare to stick around after chaos has erupted, they reach a stage of emptiness. “It is the hardest and most crucial stage of community development. It means members emptying themselves of barriers to communication. The most common barriers are expectations and preconceptions; prejudices; ideology, theology and solutions; the need to heal, fix, convert or solve; and the need to control. The stage of emptiness is ushered in as members begin to share their own brokenness–their defeats, failures, and fears, rather than acting as if they ‘have it all together.’”
A group committed to wholeness will eventually get to true community. In this stage, the group chooses to embrace not only the light but the shadow. “True community is both joyful and realistic. The transformation of the group from a collection of individuals into true community requires little deaths in many of the individuals. But it is also a time of group death, group dying. Through this emptiness, this sacrifice, comes true community. Members begin to speak of their deepest and most vulnerable parts–and others will simply listen. There will be tears–of sorrow, of joy. An extraordinary amount of healing begins to occur.”
During my trip to Africa, I found it quite remarkable to witness exactly what M. Scott Peck had said would happen. When our group plunged from the warm fuzzies of pseudo-community and into the chaos and shadow, it was uncomfortable, but I wasn’t surprised to see it coming. Fortunately, many of us were willing to stick with our relationships long enough and empty ourselves of our expectations, prejudices, and solutions to get to something deeper.
I try to encourage people not to give up hope when chaos erupts and shadow shows up in unexpected places. Instead I invite them to dare to persevere, and dare to sit with the discomfort until we get to the really juicy, really authentic place of true community. (In a future post, I will write more about what it feels like to be a leader or facilitator in such a process and how our own shadow shows up and threatens to further sabotage the growth of the community. I am still working through some of my own shadow that came up last week and continues to stick with me this week.)
I deeply believe that this is why we need containers like the circle to help us hold space for this kind of emergence. When we are intentional about our conversations right from the start, when we commit to certain agreements and have a shared understanding of the process, we create a space where we can look into the shadow without blame, shame, or avoidance. I wasn’t deeply enough immersed in circle work to bring it into the African experience, but I don’t think I’d step into such an intense experience again without it. Even something as simple as the talking piece can ensure that the conversation is slowed down enough that each voice in the room is heard and respected.
Last week, we kept returning to the circle, and though there were days when there was “just too much work to do” and the time in circle took away from the work time, I insisted that at least a check-in was necessary. When we sit in a common space where we look into each other’s eyes, we speak with intention, listen with attention, and tend the well-being of the circle, we have some hope of deepening our connections and ensuring we stick with the process even when the chaos hits.
Whatever relationship you are in – whether it is in a community, in a marriage, in a workplace, etc. – you can be assured that there will be times when the shadow makes it so uncomfortable you’ll want to run from it. The tough work will be in deciding whether it is worth it to stick with the process and build a strong enough container to get through to the really good stuff.
Interested in more articles like this? Add your name to my email list and you’ll receive a free ebook, A Path to Connection. I send out weekly newsletters and updates on my work.