How do independent human beings form a collective that has relevance and meaning to the world without the tyranny of power? Whilst human history has struggled with this question from the dawn of civilisation, the Independent Practitioners' Network (IPN) took this problem one step further: how does the hyper-independent human species called 'therapist' form a collective practice that is rooted in democracy?
'Democracy in Therapeutic Practice' saw IPN's first weekend conference in March 2007 AD. It was a break from their conventional concept of three-a-year 'gatherings' where participants address internal policy, procedure and organisational issues. Every word in the conference theme was ambitious. What on earth were IPN thinking? Why break open over a decade of private gatherings to let the world and its neurosis peer in? And anyway, what qualified them to search for or find the Holy Grail of 'democracy', hidden since Kleisthenes created the Athenian concept in 507/8 BC?
As with Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, the evident fear was addressed from the start. No leaders, no Caesar - which of course means no murders, revolutions or backstabbing overthrow required. The friendly pony-tailed part-giant/part-troll who opened, facilitated and closed the conference appeared and disappeared with such little fuss you wondered how it was all happening - and where he had vanished to! But what was happening? A deliberate, calculated strategy to prevent the accumulation of power in one group, elite or pair of hands.
Three speakers began the first half of the opening day: Andrew Samuels on personal and political aggression (with oblique references to his work in the Middle East), Arlene Audergon on process conflict resolution in communities (with special reference to her work in post-genocide Serbo-Croat communities), and Denis Postle on the brief history (not more than 15 mins!) of IPN followed by a break up of the hall into small group encounter format to introduce non-members to IPN-members. The remaining day and a half was spent in world café style group rotations, 18 different workshops led by IPN and non-IPN members from which you chose two, and a final plenary reconvening to conclude the weekend.
With so much to comment on, there were two key moments which highlighted for me the terrible realities in making democracy happen.
The first was the world café style group rotation. Around a dozen IPN members dotted around the hall were pre-elected 'leaders' and we had to choose one to form a group around. Every 15 minutes, we changed groups and found another 'leader'. After four such rotations, we gathered as a whole group, with the 'leaders' forming a circle in the middle. They then reported back to us all on themes, feelings and thoughts which arose from their four different groups.
As each 'leader' reported back, the charge in the hall began to increase as they shared the anxieties, cynicisms and doubts that were expressed about IPN and the conference itself. 'What did the speakers' topics have to do with democracy or therapeutic practice?...Was this just an underhand proselytising campaign by IPN?...Why were IPN members not identified with a different coloured badge so that 'we' could see who 'they' were?' Even more interesting were the moments when the reporting 'leaders' agreed with the sentiments or negative thoughts they were feeding back. Here were leaders openly sharing negativity, criticism and questioning of their organisation in public, without being restrained, attacked or suppressed by their fellow members. With no interaction and running over time, we were left with no answers - just a reflective and inquiring mood on our own experience and how difficult democracy is in practice because of the overwhelming diversity of need and perception it invokes.
The second event occurred in the final afternoon. All attendees were invited to lead groups on themes that mattered to them - there were around 10 offerings. We then chose the theme that attracted us to form discussion/encounter groups. However, as the hall broke up, one rather tall gentleman stood up waving his hands wildly in the air and announced 'THIS IS THE NON-AGENDA GROUP!' As I sat in this group, the opening emotions expressed were for those excluded from the conference. Two people broke into tears. It was as if the conference was not listening to the outside world, and indeed, there were many in the outside world who would never be touched by therapeutic practice. Then one person felt like screaming, and supported by the group, screamed right across the hall. A momentary silence, and we carried on, with the screamer now laughing out loud with relief. We reflected on the absence of deep emotion, its constraints and repression in the conventions of the conference. More people came over to join what was now called 'the shadow group'. As laughter replaced the initial sadness, one person (NB) stood up, turned to the rest of the hall and shouted out an invitation: 'Come over to the dark side!' The leader of the group nearby shouted back 'Can you please keep the noise down, I can't hear anything!' NB then broke into more tears as she expressed the massive fear and emotional risk of speaking for the shadow or the excluded in organisations. She understood the event was not about personal attack or blame, but a symbol of how difficult it is to integrate shadow, darkness and the excluded at an organisational level.
As conference gathered together to share our findings, the shadow group stayed in its place. The friendly part-giant/part-troll gave the mike to NB, still crying. She, along with others, expressed some of the emotions of the 'shadow group' and the symbolic event as above. Intriguingly, NB could not stop crying. As the hall absorbed the impact of what she said, there were responses of reflection, identification and some rescuing tipping over into advice. At that point, one of the shadow group shouted out: 'These are all just words! Just words! Can't you see? The girl is sobbing her heart out!' If there was a deep silence before, the depth of it now increased and flooded the hall. Slowly, one by one, people continued to speak, in sympathy, solidarity, curiousity and respect for the phenomena that NB was courageously risking before the spectacle of the whole conference. Then a counter mood wanting to 'reclaim thinking' and pointing out the diversity of conflicting needs of the nearby group - then a protest at being 'shouted at' for giving advice which was apparently not the case. When a leader of 'the constellation group' was asked for her thoughts on configurations within the conference happening now, she quietly replied: 'I have a lot of thoughts and a lot to say. But this is not the time to say them.' NB was affirmed for raising up 'ghosts' surrounding the conference, and when asked what she felt after the flow of warmth and acceptance for her, she replied with astounding authenticity: 'Shame.' What was being expressed was a rare event of an individual expressively in touch with a collective unconscious, more specifically, with its shadow of exclusion and shame of the excluded. And so, the conference ended.
The weekend demonstrated that democracy is brutal and serious business. It might be debated in books, journals or websites and bandied about by politicians or philosophers. The reality is agonising, sacrificial, costly, bewildering and perplexing. Often times there are no answers, and unendurable lapses of time may be required before a group achieve consensus on trivia and the mundane, let alone the deep and meaningful. But above all, for me, democracy is a high form of civilisation because it has the capacity for tolerance.
What the IPN conference showed was a group of people who had rolled up their sleeves and got to work with this brutal, agonising business of democracy. They were practised and showed the emotional strength of their hard earned work over the last decade. The highlights above showed a depth of listening from people who were working towards transparency, where leaders and the conference gave space for their imperfection, their fallibility, and the unconscious 'ghosts' that surrounded them. Of the therapy, spiritual, organisational and political meetings I have attended, none came close to the deep capacity for tolerating diversity, differences and inclusivity of 'outsiders'. They were not afraid of imperfection. They listened carefully and non-defensively to the expressions and voice of the shadow - from the floor and from the temporary 'leaders'. Yes, we were introduced to the organisation through meeting its members. No, we were not given out doctrinal statements of belief, policy or practice.
50% of attendees were non-IPN, and several non-IPN people ran the workshops on the second day. The range of topics on offer loosely fell under two expressions of power: within the therapy session in the client-therapist dyad and outside it in a world of regulation, politics, astral and ecotherapy. But that was just diversity and inclusivity. Democracy was located in another place - in the vibrant and lively flow of conversations after each speaker and workshop, during lunch and coffee breaks, and in the small group formats which left your head spinning and heart stirred. Agreement vs disagreement, anger vs sympathy, trashing vs admiration, stalwart enthusiasm vs hard nosed cynicism, surface-casual vs deep-and-meaningful, laughter-vs-sadness-vs-joy-vs-fear, all went on unregulated and simultaneous, in genuine encounters between people. This was the democratic pool, the real manifestation and source of democratic impulse, which was drawn on in the organisation of the conference.
The weekend stood as a milestone for me and is an impressive start for IPN's first conference. They had successfully reframed notions of democracy from a system of political governance (in which the word is usually trapped) to the practice of encounter in which active potentials are created. The depth and strength of their emotional and intellectual tolerance also revealed something else about why we are so obsessed with the word democracy: democracy spells freedom, truth and love. And for all its failings, incompetence and trashings it regularly receives, the world of therapeutic practice has the potential to deliver meaningful, dare I say, 'true' democracy because of its inherent psychological capacity for tolerance.
This may explain why there were no debates on the political meaning of the word 'democracy' and why the speakers spoke on the topics that they did. Democracy was not debated; it was being practiced. The dynamics of democratic practice were being laid bare.
In their opening talks, both Andrew Samuels and Arlene Audergon offered opportunities for personal meditation exercises on their themes. Both also opened the chance for the floor to share what was happening for us personally. The threat of democratic participation became evident - who would risk self-disclosure in a public space of around 75-100 people where one could be misheard, attacked or annihilated? Of course, the easier private space for the individual to control communication with just one other person or a small group highlighted the illusion of safety when sitting with large numbers in a democratic process swirling around you in the hall. How could the two spaces of public and private be reconciled?
Samuels located conflict and aggression in personality typology fixations that threatened to erupt and disrupt democracy when projected onto others rather than recognised in ourselves. His exercise connected us to the personality type we abhor the most in ourselves, yet find in others. The private space was there to illuminate and humanise us, as we met the enemy within. Audergon, based on process work from Arnold Mindell, spoke of a collective wisdom that lived within people groups which could spookily be trusted and tapped into as a potential source of healing democracy. Restoration in Serbo-Croat post-genocide communities happened when the ghosts of the past were invited to speak and the children to whom the future belonged became the axis of transformation and communal good. But the space in which such hearing took place was a public one, and needed the extreme risk of vulnerable personal disclosure for participatory democratic process to work.
IPN dared to show that an interaction between the private space of therapies and the public space of group wisdom could combine in forms of interactive practice and democratic process. Because of their practised grounding, my guess is that IPN are emotionally secure enough to share this offering to the therapeutic world at a very interesting time in its history. Whilst the clamour, farce and rage go on about regulation, the reality is that caring and practising therapists everywhere are more interested in finding an alternative. The historic tide is swelling as a protest that will need to break out from the institutional aggression that surrounds the therapeutic world in all its guises. IPN may well be one of the few containers that can swerve some of that tide into a humanising and democratic process.
But in keeping with the conference, I would like to end on a note about the shadow of this potential historicity for IPN. The conference placed its trust in democratic process. As it grows, the pressure to switch democracy back to governance, political and administrative systems will increase as a fact of organisational development. Like Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, it may not be enough to listen to the carriers of dreams and expressions of the collective unconscious. The competing energies of Caesar, Brutus, Cassius and Mark Anthony could emerge from within the unaddressed political articulation of the organisation.
Because he is a democrat, Brutus murders Caesar : 'Shall Rome stand under one man's awe?'1 The play ends with a tribute speech to him from his victor Mark Anthony:
'This was the noblest Roman of them all:
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar.
He only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle,…
…This was a man!'2
Brutus is also a great therapist to his friend Cassius3. But Brutus and his conspirators bring murder, strife and civil war. Another Caesar is restored and democratic hope lost because questions of leadership, finance, friendship, flattery, betrayal, envy, deception, loyalty and trust were not addressed politically, at the level of governance. It seems that 'honest thought' and 'common good' may not be enough to deliver democratic practice.
Brutus represents the well meaning, honest, delusional shadow of democracy. Like the French revolution (1789-1799) with its cry of 'liberté, égalité, fraternité', it is easy to unite against and guillotine the opposition - only to end with a parliament of terror followed by a Napoleon. The same was true of the collapse of the Weimar Republic into the fascism of Hitler in Germany (1919-1933). Likewise in England (1649-1658), with the failure of the Commonwealth and parliament to stop first Cromwell's tyranny and then the restoration of the monarchy with Charles II. Note the decade length of freedom before collapse here! Fans of the US federal-republican constitution4 may also wonder how principles of democracy have sociologically delivered the tyranny, inequalities and capitalist exploitation associated with America and its domestic and foreign policies. IPN might need to venture into the fields of political and social science for resource, though able to avoid them right now. The inevitable organisational frame moving towards political involvement (from private to public spaces) may demand it.
We can only congratulate IPN and watch with interest and, hopefully, participation of the democratic sort. It is worth clarifying at the end here that those who led the conference groups were not called 'leaders' but 'hosts' whose role was to facilitate and receptively feedback or represent different voices. More about IPN can be found on www.i-p-n.org.
We can also hope that uniquely, IPN will be ready to face its own organisational shadow rearing its head in those famous words of betrayal: 'Et tu, Brute?'
1. Shakespeare, William, Julius Caesar, The Arden Shakespeare, Thomson, 2006, Act 2, Scene 1, 52.
2. Ibid, Act 5, Scene 5, 69-76
3. See the altercation between them in Act 4, Scene 3, 85-121
4. The formulation of the Declarations of Independence (by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in1776), the Constitution (finalised and presented by Benjamin Franklin in 1787) and the Bill of Rights (a Franklin-Jefferson-Madison composition in 1791) do not seem to have delivered the American dream of 'liberty and justice for all' on its democratic assumption that 'all (wo)men are created equal.'