My Zen teacher, Genpo Roshi, once told me a long time ago, “You can’t work with a voice that comes up in the room if you don’t know that same voice in yourself.”
What Roshi meant is that anytime you are facilitating a group of people in a dialogue or group process, and a participant expresses a thought, a feeling, a perspective or “voice,” you as the facilitator need to quickly locate that same experience in your own interior awareness; that is, if you want to remain present, congruent, and trustable in front of the room.
This idea is not an entirely new idea in human development circles. Jung pioneered the idea of shadow work, which is the psychological practice of bringing the unacknowledged, marginalized, or shameful parts of experience into awareness. The same phenomenon occurs in forms of Tibetan Buddhist practice and in many shamanic rituals.
Likewise, philosopher Ken Wilber has repeatedly emphasized in his writing that anyone who wants to fully awaken should not not only meditate, but also find a method for including the difficulties of conditioned existence and acknowledge the disavowed “shadow” elements of his or her mind and life.
I have heard that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, the remarkable death and dying reformer, made the startling and deeply uncomfortable comment that unless you “can find the part of yourself that would steal bread from a dying baby’s mouth,” you cannot become whole.
Kubler-Ross’ stark comment points to the requirement that shadow work places on our attention and demands of our heart. It is difficult to include the unwanted parts of our experience in any circumstances, for all kinds of different reasons. But it especially challenging to embrace a difficult perspective when you are standing in front of the room feeling responsible for what is going on.
As a facilitator, we want things to go smoothly or to come off without a hitch, so we will often resist the comment of pesky person or the troubling side issue that arises out of nowhere and threatens to pull us off course. When this happens, the instruction to include the shadow is worth remembering every time.
I had an experience at a recent workshop that points this out. I was working in Switzerland at Villa Unspunnen, one of the retreat centers of the exquisite German teacher, Annette Kaiser. (She and her two partners, Sonja Student and Tom Steininger are hosting a year long spiritual training program, Menschen in Spirit, and have created a wonderful container for practice.)
In the workshop, I was facilitating the Big Mind process, which is the awareness practice created by my teacher and based on the work of Hal and Sidra Stone, pioneers of a contemporary form of Jungian psychology. In this process we were exploring a set of “voices;” that is, different perspectives or states of mind that are basic to the method and help to create the context for the awareness work.
I began by asking the audience to speak to the “controller,” the voice that creates the discipline for the practice and gives explicit permission for the facilitator to explore the interior landscape of the group. The controller represents our volition—our capacity to choose to participate fully in our experience.
After the “controller,” I asked to speak to the “skeptic, ” the voice inside of us that continues to question, to doubt and to probe into what is true. The skeptic is our internal scientist, the one who can take a third person perspective on our experience, testing it and insisting that all claims be proved. This is the discriminating part of mind that establishes firm and trustable ground for us to stand on in the world. In other words, the skeptic protects us against our own gullibility and naivete.
I then asked the participants to tell me the difference between the skeptic and the “cynic.” As we talked, we saw that the difference between the skeptic and the cynic is that while the skeptic is still inquiring, the cynic has stopped posing questions of life—asking what is true, valid, or worthwhile. Instead, the cynic has closed the door on reality and nailed it shut with a deliberate “No.” It can be a quiet no, a humorous no, a loud no, or even a very intelligent or over-educated no, but it is a no nonetheless. In other words, the cynic is no longer open.
Someone’s hand shot up. “I would like to speak as the cynic,” the man said firmly. I started to say no to him. I explained that we didn’t have enough time and that the cynic wouldn’t have much to contribute to our work that would be positive.
Suddenly I realized that I was also in the position of saying no in an automatic, knee-jerk-defensive kind of way. I saw that I, myself, was being cynical; cynical that the voice had anything worthwhile to offer to the conversation. The man persisted with his request, and the room silently backed him up. I saw there was no way out. As I reluctantly relented, I realized how out of touch I was with my own voice of cynicism.
Worse, I didn’t even know how to gain access to the cynical perspective in my own mind. There is a very particular feeling when, as a facilitator, I wade into an experience of the unknown. I start to feel adrift, a little confused, and even dizzy. I feel a fog of uncertainty settle in over me. When that sensation comes up, I know my only good option is to let go, to focus my sense perceptions on the room, feel my feet on the ground, and trust the group to discover what wants to happen next.
At that point, I began to listen intently, and then the group proceeded to have the most fruitful conversation about cynicism. It was a very strong, energized voice. We discovered the part in each of us that has chosen to shut down, sorely disappointed in our path and our truth, and who has lost faith in ourselves and in others. This led to an acknowledgement of specific types of cultural cynicism: German cynicism, Swiss cynicism, and American cynicism; each one expressing a slightly different rationale for closing the heart.
Most importantly, we saw that the cynic serves to protect us from feeling pain and disappointment in our ideals. But when we acknowledged and included this voice, at least for a few minutes, it had an amazing way of clearing the decks of our empty beliefs and opening a new door to our pain, to our feelings, and to our compassion for others. In other words, the cynic, in that moment at least, was a gate-keeper to the heart—even though I never would have thought it.
This story points to one of the central truths of facilitation. What we don’t recognize or know inside ourselves is the territory we most fear exploring when we are in front of the room. If our aspiration is to liberate the groups and organizations we are working with to experience more authentic relating and enjoyable collaboration, then our work begins with our willingness to explore the uncharted terrain of our own interiors.
As a practice, learn to take time to locate and hear these voices in yourself, and to acknowledge that even if they are unwanted, these perspectives have a right to exist. By cultivating the ability to make room for any perspective that might arise, even if a group chooses not to go there, you as the facilitator are clearing the way for deeper energy and truth in service of the group’s purpose.
Diane Musho Hamilton
Co-Founder and Lead Teacher, Integral Facilitator®
Author, Everything is Workable, a Zen Approach to Conflict Resolution.