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Holographic Theory and Groups
Reader: Alan Briskin, Ph.D.
"…we decide which is right…and which is an illusion"
There are several concepts contained in holographic theory that may be relevant to understanding how groups can access spiritual wisdom or universal intelligence. They are: 1) the process of holography itself which is based on lensless photography – how the three-dimensional image (the hologram) is manifest; 2) the discovery that the holographic plate, when divided, produces parts that actually contain the whole of the image; and 3) the coexistence of an implicate (enfolded) and an explicate (unfolded) order within phenomena. Each of these concepts holds information that, I believe, can help us understand what can happen in a group that takes it beyond the level of interpersonal and task functioning. The concepts are so intimately connected that discussion of one leads seamlessly into the others and so, for the purposes of this paper, they will be considered holistically.
In the following pages I will explore the connections between the properties of holography and group experience in an attempt to understand the phenomenon of transgroup learning – the capability of a group of people to collectively learn from a dimension outside of the space/time dimension in which their interactions occur. Much of the application of holographic theory to the social sciences to date – largely from David Bohm’s work in physics – has centered on the explicate form of group interaction, the actual interchanges between group members and their effect on the dynamics of the group either as ends in themselves (psychology or sociology) or as means to accomplish a task (education, organizational development). This essay focuses, instead, on considering how holographic principles might be guides for understanding the processes through which a group can access a larger field of wisdom that might be useful in creating a collective future in which wholeness and unity are the operating paradigm instead of fragmentation and divisiveness.
As we begin a new century we are made aware of the effects of a prevalent worldview that has as its core the belief in duality and reductive thought and action. Although September 11, 2001 will live in world memory as a shattering moment, one of those occurrences so extreme that it served as a wake-up call for many about the disunity of the world and its people, incidents of fragmentation and feelings of alienation were pervasive prior to this event, and disconnectedness between human beings and between them and their environment grows all the time. This is the backdrop from which I undertake this venture, and I dedicate my efforts to the learning that may result from these pages - for myself and for the reader. My hope is that it will in some way be a step toward a more cohesive, unified, and satisfying future for us all.
Although conscious evolution through paradigm shift is its lofty and altruistic goal, this paper remains on a more concrete level. In it I examine the three above-mentioned concepts and suggest some activities that might be used in group experience to help "open the window". While I believe that such activities can, and do, occur spontaneously in groups, I write this with the belief that a facilitator familiar with some of these practices may be able to accelerate the process. Assuming there is an implicate order to this universe we inhabit, I am excited about the possibility of being able to consciously access its guidance and wisdom.
Work has already begun in this arena. Christopher Bache, in his recent book, Dark Night, Early Dawn, explains that while Sacred Mind is "…the unbounded awareness within which all individualized experience occurs, the living matrix within which minds meet and engage," we fail to recognize it because "…we habitually restrict our experience of mind to the nearby territory of ego and…to a culture [that] has not taught us to recognize the presence of this broader mental field, let alone how it functions." (2000). Bache, an educator, is concerned with a different kind of knowing than the one offered in the current model of Western education. Using concepts from quantum theory, he asserts:
Bache, using the classroom setting of a typical American university, describes his experience of energy fields surrounding individual students as well as himself and how their engagement creates a collective group mind in which accelerated learning can take place. There are three key ingredients necessary for this field to form, he says: 1) collective intention focused in group projects; 2) a project of sustained duration; and 3) repetition of the project in approximately the same form many times. Thus, a repeatedly offered course in a certain subject taken by highly motivated students (preferably at advanced levels) offers an environment into which a greater intelligence, or Sacred Mind, can enter. It is important to note, too, that Bache uses the term learning to mean personal development and growth as much as it refers to the subject or course content being taught.
In a study supported by the Fetzer Institute, Alan Briskin and his colleagues, responding to author Jacob Needleman’s image of the group as "the art form of the future" conducted a study posing the question, "How do we come together to touch, or be touched by, the intelligence we need?" (2001). Interviewing dozens of people with experience working with groups and a commitment to creating nurturing containers for collective insight, Briskin et al. sought to "…render visible a phenomenon with subtle and intangible qualities, qualities most often discerned tacitly, indirectly. Connection. Relationship. Coherence. Wholeness. Wisdom. Emergence. Healing. Flow. Transformation." The group experiences described in this study were typically one-time events, unlike the ongoing, repetitive format of the groups Bache describes.
Presented in a holistic manner that incorporates visual imagery such as photographs and artwork, the results of Briskin’s inquiry include noteworthy references to phenomena experienced outside the realm of the purely interpersonal: synchronicity, surprise, mystery, alchemy, and movement of the whole. An example of the description of the principle of synchronicity as one of the common elements of a group experience:
Two other studies contribute to the nascent work in the arena of collective intelligence and spiritual wisdom in groups. Mario Cayer, in his 1996 doctoral dissertation inquiring into the experience of individuals engaged in Bohmian dialogue in groups, found that interviewees experienced a "transformation of consciousness", a spiritual dimension that they became aware of and that they attributed to the process of dialogue. In my own inquiry into a phenomenon occurring in a group within an academic setting (2001, in progress), references to the spiritual realm were frequent and pervasive. Comments describing the group experience included references to the Bible ("It was a Genesis story", referring to another member’s story), to Jesus Christ ("The power of his story was pain. It was Christ-like."), to having felt similarly in religious settings, and to a felt energy in the room that felt spiritual. Descriptions of a rhythm or rhythmic quality within the group were also common. I was struck by the recurring reports of spirituality or to an energetic domain experienced in addition to the references to interpersonal dynamics commonly associated with group work, especially in a secular setting.
Like Bache in the classroom and Briskin and colleagues with a diverse collection of group facilitators and participants, these studies refer to an intelligence that transcends that which exists solely in the minds and hearts of the discrete individuals engaged in collective activity.
While not necessarily spiritual, the metaphor of the hologram and the holographic process contains elements that can move us from a two-dimensional consideration of group experience to a three-dimensional one. In the remainder of this paper I would like to use this framework for considering this capacity of groups and how it might be accomplished. It is important to remember, though, that metaphors are not absolutes and they are not explanations. They serve as maps, images and guides by which knowledge and insight can be organized, not as the territory they are mapping. Importantly, though, they also serve as generators of new knowledge. Like parables, which are continually rediscovered in terms of new interpretations and new applications, so the successful metaphor provides a point of departure for new understandings and insights. (Crowell, 1992).
What is Holography?
Ken Wilber provides a succinct and understandable definition of holography:
While the mathematical principle of holography was discovered in 1947 by Dennis Gabor, for which he later earned a Nobel Prize, it had to await the discovery of the laser almost two decades later for an actual demonstration. In the intervening years, neuroscientist Karl Pribram of Stanford University was wondering how the human brain stores memories. Conventional theories of the time which posited that memories were stored in discrete areas of the brain were confounded by experiments by colleague Karl Lashley and others in which efforts to remove large parts of animal brains yielded no loss of total memory in the remaining parts of the brain. In other words, these scientists were finding that any piece of the brain had the ability to reconstruct the entire store of memories.
Reading an article in the mid 1960’s in Scientific American describing the first construction of a hologram, Pribram began to wonder if there was a connection between the two processes – the photographic one and the neurological one. In 1966 he published his first paper proposing such a connection and began a journey in brain research in which evidence was collected that indicated that the brain’s "deep structure" is essentially a hologram – analogous to the lensless photographic process discovered by Gabor. Using neural strategies relying on mathematical computations, the brain sees, hears, senses and performs complex calculations on the frequencies of data it receives. Reality, then, as perceived by the human brain is the product of such calculations and may have little to do with the world as it exists apart from our perception of it. In other words, these scientists found that the brain may be acting as a "lens", interpreting frequencies and creating information out of the neural interactions. In such a scenario, is the reality we perceive real or are our brains essentially making it up?
At about the same time, David Bohm, a physicist, was positing, using his research in the new field of quantum physics, that the hologram might be a starting point for a new description of reality: the enfolded (implicate) order. While the accepted wisdom of the time focused on secondary manifestations – the unfolded (explicate) aspect of things - not their source, Bohm felt that the field - the invisible flux that is not comprised of parts - is an inseparable interconnectedness between all things in the universe. Bohm’s universe contained "…a realm of frequencies and potentialities underlying an illusion of concreteness." (Wilber, 1982). To illustrate this concept, Bohm describes an insoluble ink droplet in glycerine. If the fluid is stirred slowly by a mechanical device, the droplet is drawn into a thin thread and eventually disappears into the glycerine. If the device is reversed, the ink droplet will reconstitute itself. The droplet can be said to be folded into the viscous fluid and is thus always there although it appears as if it has vanished. Applied to the reality of our universe, Bohm uses the terms holoflux or holomovement instead of hologram to indicate the dynamic, changing nature of the universe. Again, though, the questions about reality and illusion surface – and from a very different context than Pribram’s.
The implications for a belief that the brain may employ a holographic process to abstract from a holographic domain are intriguing. "Parapsychologists have searched in vain for the energy that might transmit telepathy, psychokinesis, healing, etc. If these events emerge from frequencies transcending time and space, they don’t have to be transmitted. They are potentially simultaneous and everywhere." (Wilber, 1982). The explanation for many things previously labeled paranormal or dismissed as unscientific then became possible. (Krippner, 1978). While Eastern spiritual traditions had believed for centuries that the greater field of consciousness was reality – a reality of unification - and that our earthly activities were illusory and subject to fragmentation, the discoveries within the Western scientific domain were important for giving the idea credibility.
The principles of holography were applied, in the ensuing years, to other arenas of human endeavor. In addition to physics (Capra, 1975; Zukav 1979, Peat, 1987), biology (Ferguson, 1980; Sheldrake, 1994), and medicine (Chopra and Simon, 1997; Siegel, 1997), the social sciences provided a place in which to apply these theories.
In psychology the idea of a field that exists between patient and therapist and how that ‘third dimension’ might influence the process of healing on a frequency level was proposed by New York psychoanalyst Edgar Levenson. Stanislav Grof, a psychiatrist, links non-ordinary states of consciousness and archetypal experiences with the holographic model, asserting that people who have experienced these states, including scientists and other well-educated and sophisticated individuals, have reported that they entered hidden domains of reality. (1985). Michael Conforti adds to the discussion on archetypes when he suggests that patient-therapist dynamics summon archetypal forces which exist fully outside the space/time dimension (1999). The everyday experience of dreaming, too, has been viewed as a visit to a "parallel universe". (Wolf, 1987).
In philosophy, Martin Buber added to the dialogue with his notion of "the space between" two people or objects, created when there is mutual honoring of each’s sanctity and wholeness. It is into this space, he believes, that the Divine enters to provide a kind of intelligence required by the parties. In Buber’s work, one hears the echoes of David Bohm’s implicate order or Buddhism’s samadhi (enlightenment or bliss).
Crowell (1992) discusses the holographic concepts of embeddedness and the whole in the part as they apply to the field of education. In his doctoral dissertation he highlights the fragmented nature of American education using the examples of piecemeal school curricula, the isolation of classrooms, and the detachment existing among schools and even between teacher and learner. In curriculum, for example, he suggests that every subject area be considered a part of every other area, that, "Embedded in history is art, music, science, literature", and that such a holistic approach is different from an interdisciplinary one, which still uses a dualistic paradigm. It is a different way of thinking, not only of doing, Crowell says. Bohm’s implicate order is discussed as well, with Crowell suggesting that threaded throughout all of education should be meaning – coming from the inclusion of each individual learner’s personal experience into the learning process – a component sometimes forgotten in the effort to fill a student’s mind with facts. Meaning, for Crowell, is a part of the enfolded implicate order of education.
In the organizational realm, colleagues Peter Senge and William Isaacs, collaborating with David Bohm, pioneered work in team learning with the belief that "…collectively, we can be more insightful, more intelligent than we can possibly be individually." (Senge, 1990). Using Werner Heisenberg’s assertion, "Science is rooted in conversations", these men have championed the team-based organization and developed a group communication process called dialogue to enable the group to more effectively work together and learn from one another and the environment. In their work, they have included principles of quantum and holographic theory.
In the realm of the group, the subject of this paper, William Isaacs work comes closest to applying properties of holographic theory to actual group practices. In his 1999 book Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, he identifies the principle of the part in the whole, naming a chapter subheading, "I am in the world and the world is in me". In it he calls the reader’s attention to his or her own process:
Encouraging the reader to think in this way, he sets the stage for group work in which participants are invited to think of others as parts of themselves and vice versa. He thus sets the stage for collective learning through emphasizing that the group is a whole unit as well as a collection of individual parts.
Although Isaacs begins to apply holographic concepts in his work, there is much more to be considered. In my opinion his application of holography to group work focuses on the interpersonal dynamics of the group. Its purpose, I believe, is to help create dynamics in a group that enable it to effectively function as a vehicle for learning, presumably related to a task or issue needing to be addressed. Isaacs’ book breaks ground by articulating the philosophical underpinnings that lead to the communication practices of listening, respecting, suspending, and voicing. The focus is how to be together – reminiscent of Buber’s "space between" and is an important first step in creating a container into which the Divine or other universal force, however conceived, can enter. Isaacs seems to stop, though, at the level of interpersonal interactions and their intent – both necessary to create the container. It is the next part of the conversation I wish to address in the remainder of this paper.
Lensless Photography and the Group
The idea of lensless photography is intriguing as it applies to group process. Unlike typical photography in which the camera has a lens or set of lenses that focus the direct (blurry) images of what it actually senses - creating clear, distinct images with definite boundaries and familiar to the human eye - the holographic process uses light waves created by light sources (or reflections thereof) without lenses, to create a holographic plate in which these light waves are captured. The image on the plate is created by the waves from each source intersecting and is captured as a field of random images. Thus the plate is capturing the ‘blur’, if you will, because there has been no focusing of the images prior to their projection onto the plate.
The principle is described differently by biologist Lyall Watson:
This three-dimensional image emerging from the plate, the hologram, is really quite magical. It can be viewed from many angles and appears very real, though passing a hand through it yields no tangible form. It could be described, therefore, as an illusion, or perhaps as a glimpse into another dimension, in which case it might be the reality while the process used to give it form might be the illusion.
The idea of creating (or accessing) a third dimension, which opens up the discrete, boundaried, dualistic world in which we live to another source is interesting to consider as it applies to group process. Suppose, instead of "focusing" our attention – our words or our goals for a group meeting – before we begin to interact with one another, we simply put our individual "light" into the group field? Imagining that each speaker is dropping his or her ‘pebble into the pond’ and creating the rippling waves that result, what might the resulting plate of images - of all of those waves in the group field – look like? Instead of having a purpose to the contributions of each member or even to the group as a whole, perhaps the purpose could be left to emerge from the intersection of crests and troughs of light. What would be created on this group plate might actually appear at first as a blur, not focused images created by what the participants’ chose to leave in or out depending on what was important to the individual prior to his or her contributing it to the group plate. In this way the group is creating a field with more of each of its participants included and the resulting image, when accessed, may be different from what could have been created using focused, filtered images.
In everyday conversation or interaction with others, we tend to focus our light. We respond to a specific question, make an assertion for what we desire or need, plan an activity, or otherwise engage in productive exchanges with others whose support or services we need. This focusing, especially in the efficient world of the West, is considered essential for moving us forward as a society dedicated to innovation and improvement. In this scenario, time is of the essence. The saving of time, speeding it up as much as possible in order to accomplish the tasks we deem so important, focuses our interactions even more. Instead of whole selves interacting with other whole selves, we create fragmented parts of ourselves that are useful to others for a specific purpose and period of time. We rarely allow the time for the shining of our light – the entire spectrum of our light – or for the absorption of others’.
In a group situation, what would a person’s "light" be? It might a story as it relates to the topic the group has gathered for. Instead of a distinct, focused answer or assertion made by a group member, perhaps the format for communicating with one another in this kind of group might invite more of the person into the process by eliciting his or her story around the issue. Because story often contains so many aspects of the self – some conscious, some unconscious such as a tone of voice, an expression, or a reference to something not obviously related to the content - it could contain information that might intersect with the listener’s need at the moment, again conscious or not. The need of the listener, though not necessarily even known to him or her, may become activated by something said in the context of the story and learning can occur.
This learning can be from two different sources, both reflecting holographic principles. Using the concept of the whole in the part when considering a group, the whole of the group intelligence is contained within every member and every member’s intelligence is contained in the group. It is possible to imagine, therefore, how listening to someone else’s story might reflect a part of one’s own reality and in such a way provide an answer to an unspoken question that influences one’s own life. Using the pebble in the pond image, perhaps the troughs of the waves, when intersecting – or interfering – create a sudden unexpected energy and the spark from which learning can occur. If the other person’s crest, on the other hand, interferes with the trough of one’s own need on a certain topic contained in his or her story, a calm space will occur; they will cancel each other out, in other words, not necessarily resulting in a learning event because of a lack of the kind of inherent meaning Crowell describes as necessary for such an event to occur. (1992).
Christopher Bache, in describing a phenomenon he’d noticed in his classroom, put it this way:
Could we, through our stories, be slipping each other messages about not only what we need but what others need? If we believe that the universe is constantly evolving and that we are a part of that universe, albeit in different places along the path, perhaps, then maybe our own development can be aided by notes from others on different paths or just further along. Taking the time in group work, then, to allow participants to shine their whole light into the group space, not just their focused light, might be worthwhile for individual developmental learning and also to the activity or task the group was convened to address.
Further learning can occur in a group through a kind of feedback system in which participants’ stories continually signal and modify each other, similar to Karl Pribram’s findings on how nerve impulses in the brain act in such a continuous feedback loop rather than following the behavioral tenets of stimulus/response. In such a system learning is continuous and accelerated through connection.
Another characteristic of the holographic plate that may contain insight into group learning is that any piece of it contains qualities of redundancy and specialization. In a group these differences and similarities in individuals would not only be evident but should be valued for their part in creating the whole – the magical image created from, or accessed by, the collective effort.
In addition to the learning possibilities inherent in individual interaction through storytelling, another light source may be available in group work. For a consideration of this, I borrow concepts from David Bohm’s theories on implicate and explicate order.
Assuming there is a force outside of the individual, whether it be conceptualized as archetypal fields, morphic resonance, nature, or a spiritual domain - or all of the above and other - how might the interference patterns recorded onto the group plate through the intersection of personal stories open a window onto this larger domain, allowing whatever intelligence is needed by the group and its members to enter and dwell for a time, enriching them individually as well as collectively? Might that happen even on a frequency level when the group energy entrains with the energy contained in the surrounding field(s)? (Judith, 1987). Bache uses the phrase "synchronized group awareness" to describe the phenomenon he has experienced in the classroom group and believes that such incidences of energetic resonance and morphic fields have the potential to transform not only educational environments but contexts in which creativity are necessary, such as board rooms, think tanks and laboratories. It is my own belief that such creativity is essential in every context today where people gather to accomplish something as we move from the industrial age into the information one. Innovation and creativity are already the bywords of organizational success and will become ever more so. Like the two hemispheres of the brain which tend to move into the theta frequency range associated with higher creativity when they are stimulated into states of synchronization, people working together might need one another and help from another dimension to accelerate their learning and growth. (2000).
When considering forces beyond the concrete, physical plane, the question of illusion surfaces again. While the hologram itself is believed to be the illusion (Talbot, 1991), it might be considered to be the reality, or implicate order, if we think of the group activity as synchronized group awareness capable of summoning intelligence from another dimension. The emergent wisdom, then, is the reality and the process through which it is summoned might be considered the illusion. In Eastern philosophy and spiritual tradition, the belief is that all of life in the concrete, physical, practical forms we engage in is illusion. The reality, for the East, is the background, the unitary consciousness that unites everything in the universe and is always evolving behind the foreground of the activities we as humans engage in, even though we remain unaware, for the most part, of its existence and influence on us. The world of discrete, focused, filtered, images of people, events, thoughts, and feelings play out against the backdrop of wholeness and create the fragmented, divisive, dualistic world we inhabit.
The question remains of whether such states of synchronization, or access to a greater intelligence, can be manifest or whether they must remain spontaneous occurrences in groups. Many have had such experiences (Briskin, 2001) but little attention has been given to the conscious creation of such group states.
In holography, the image of the hologram is summoned by a reference beam, a beam of pure laser light shined onto the holographic plate. Continuing with the holographic metaphor, what might the reference beam be in a group? I propose two very different possibilities for what might be considered the reference beam, the "pure light" that has the ability to call forth a greater intelligence from the blurry images on the group plate. While the facilitator him- or herself might be thought of as a reference beam, and Gaynelle Winograd, in her 1985 doctoral dissertation examining organizational culture through language using principles of holography, identifies the researcher as the reference beam when he or she illuminates story texts in organizations with critical interpretive analysis, I will not focus on individuals as reference beams here.
The first possibility is silence. Perhaps the pause between stories, between words, is what is needed for a greater understanding – for a message from beyond - to emerge. Perhaps it is silence which, when enfolded into the group process, has the power to call forth from the stories sitting on the group plate at the moment, the greater understanding, the field surrounding the group and within it. It would be like Buber’s "space between" two Thou’s, like meditation’s space between two thoughts – a kind of no-thought, energy-filled consciousness – very alive – that connects together the participants and to a universal source from which a different kind of knowing is possible.
In an essay on field consciousness, Renee Weber cites Meister Eckhart as saying that "there is nothing in all the universe so much like G-d as silence," (1978). Perhaps with all of our thinking activity we are missing the greatest kind of intelligence available to us through the simple act of staying still. Silence, then, might be one kind of reference beam for group access to a greater intelligence.
Another possibility is that the reference beam might be the right question asked within the group setting. When groups come together there is always a question – explicit or implicit – that needs to be answered. In task groups, such as in organizations, where people come together to accomplish something, a typical question is how the problem will be solved. In support or therapy groups, the implicit question may be how the participants can be of service to one another in addressing their needs.
In holographic group theory, the question(s) that elicits the stories and provides answers for the group – either from one another or from another source, or both – is of great importance. It must be a question, in my opinion, that beckons the group members’ unfocused light, their story, not specific responses that contain filtered images. It may be exactly what was filtered out of a person’s response in a group that contains just the information the group needs. I think this holds for both product and process-oriented groups. By story I do not mean to imply that we’re always asking for the person’s life story. Instead, it is their own experience relative to the purpose of the group gathering that could prove to be ripple, intersecting with others’, that opens the group’s understanding and growth.
An example from my own experience might be illustrative. In a recent academic setting which was to introduce a course to students on the importance of understanding the self as a key component to being effective in organizational settings, the instructor offered the following question for the assembled group to consider: "Think of a time when suddenly, something you understood perfectly now appears in a new light. What occurred? What shifted in you? What was the result?" Though there was much to be covered in the way of course content in the four hours allotted to this session, the underlying paradigm shift that would be asked of students taking the course was the most important learning required – a shift from focusing on the external world of the organization to an internal one.
The question, phrased in such a way as to elicit group members’ personal experiences of vulnerability and shift in perspective, proved to be the key to an altered consciousness reported by a majority of group members subsequently interviewed by me for a pilot study. This feedback from others aligned with my own experience as a participant in that group, which is what initially motivated my study. The right question might, indeed, be a reference beam for group transcendence.
Having considered the usefulness of several concepts contained in holographic theory – the process of lensless photography, the whole in the part, and implicate and explicate order – to understanding how groups might be able to access universal intelligence or spiritual wisdom, I return, in closing, to my purpose in undertaking this endeavor.
Early in this paper I expressed my belief that we currently live in a fragmented and divisive world based on a paradigm that values duality and reductive thinking and action. My hope is that we as human beings have the capacity to believe and behave differently going forward, indeed I think we must shift our mental models (emotional, physical, and spiritual, among others) in order to even survive as a species and as a part of a larger universe. I fear that our alienation could lead to annihilation of ourselves and/or our environment unless we begin to understand things in a different way. The holographic metaphor, for me, is a framework with which to understand and communicate a new paradigm in a way that brings together the gifts of Western science and Eastern philosophy and tradition.
Scholar Marilyn Ferguson’s (1978) observation sums up my hope for the future:
Although I have focused, in this paper, on the evidence from Western science that supports the potential for group process, I close it with a most extraordinary description of a holographic reality contained in an ancient Buddhist sutra:
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