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Origin Points of the Collective Wisdom Initiative

© 2004 Alan Briskin

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Inspiration in a Correspondence between Jacob Needleman and Robert Lehman
The Metaphor of Maps and Mapping a Field of Study
The Creation of Centered on the Edge
The Collective Wisdom Initiative
Guiding Principles of Approach
Blessings and Invocation
Provoking the Daimon
Seeking the Edge
Collective Consciousness as a Legitimate Field of Study
Empiricism, Phenomenology, and Resonance
The Individual in the Group
A Mapmaker of the Interior Realm
Bion’s Contribution to Collective Wisdom
Collective Wisdom and Spiritual Intelligence
The Mapping of the Mind
Dawning of Free Communities
Group as Art Form
The Art of Human Association


Beginnings are gentle
If we let them be,
Not brass bands
Nor gongs of certainty
But flute sounds…
Quiet questioning,
Soft inquiry.
                                             -Judy Brown

It was not planned.
The idea of mapping a field of collective intelligence and spiritual wisdom,
or collective wisdom, as we now call it, was invisible
to those of us who began the journey. At best, we suspected
that the full dimensions of group intelligence and group collaboration
had never been fully articulated. At worst, we feared
that we would be boring down a dry well
or simply repeating and summarizing what had come before.
Certainly scholars of various fields – philosophers, sociologists,
psychologists, theologians, management theorists, and anthropologists –
have written extensively on groups and group behavior.
How might we be different?
How might such an inquiry include a spiritual component, especially
since groups are often seen as simply a context or even an obstacle
to the inner development of the individual?

No journey begins without a first step.
One of those first steps came in the desert of New Mexico
where a small group was participating in a dialogue
on the role of aesthetics in group life. During the gathering,
one participant was asked if he might consider joining in research
being conducted with support of a small grant from the Fetzer Institute.
“What is the research?” he asked.
“We are still trying to figure that out,” he was told, “but we have an initial question.”
“What question is that?” he asked, his curiosity provoked.

“The question is, when does magic happen in groups?”

Inspiration in a Correspondence Between
Jacob Needleman and Robert Lehman

In a letter to Rob Lehman, then President of the Fetzer Institute,
Jacob Needleman offered his thoughts on the future role of the Institute.
He described how every great culture had a particular form that transmitted truths
needing expression in a given time. “In our present culture…,” he wrote,
“the main need is for a form that can enable human beings to share
their perceptions and attention and, through that sharing, to become a conduit
for the appearance of spiritual intelligence.”

Needleman’s words inspired and helped frame the nature of the initial research.
The question of when magic happens in groups became something more than simply
identifying creativity, cheerfulness, or even emotional connection.
How might groups be “conduits” for spiritual intelligence?
How might such intelligence be known?
In what configurations and under what conditions might such intelligence appear?
What obstacles and dark passages in groups
might need to be traversed in order to become such a conduit?
Clearly to study such questions required crossing many disciplines
and tapping into intimate experience. For what purpose?

Needleman outlined in his letter the urgency of such a journey:
“we obviously cannot confront this tangled world alone…. It takes
no great insight to realize that we have no choice but to think together,
ponder together, in groups and communities. The question is how to do this.
How to come together and think and hear each other in order to touch,
or be touched by the intelligence we need.”

In a world deeply fractured and polarized, we need to draw upon
a principle of interdependence that taps our collective intelligence.
But to untangle such a world requires something else; the capacity
to touch and be touched by something larger than ourselves –
a spiritual component grounded in the contemplative traditions
and alive to the needs of the world. And here is where Needleman uses
language that strays from traditional suggestions of more academic studies
or analytic disassembling of group process: “I [believe] that the group is the art form of the future….”

Needleman’s words stimulated and affirmed the need for an approach
that would help us see and feel the significance of groups
convening, gathering, and working together in new ways. Rather than
searching for simple definitions or a reductive set of generalizations,
the notion of an “art form” evokes associations
with beauty, variety, and creative ambiguity.
The invitation to create a new art form
has a visceral aspect - tactile, vibratory, and emotional.

The Metaphor of Maps and Mapping a Field of Study

Early on in the research, the concept of mapping became a functional metaphor
for exploration into known and unknown realms. As inspiration,
we drew upon the real life example of Fra Mauro, a Venetian monk
and cartographer living in the 16th century, and the fictional account
of his life written by James Cowan.

Venice, in its time, was at the crossroads of the world
and Fra Mauro’s task was to compose a map made up from
those who traveled to the far corners of the earth -
pilgrims, travelers and merchants.
He heard views and descriptions of places
he had never personally visited or could even imagine.
And as he listened, he absorbed something beyond
just the literal representation of these locales.
Fra Mauro sought to create a map of the world,
but the spirit of his efforts evoked the imaginal realm,
an instinct for the deep patterns and archetypal forms
that inform our understanding of reality.

Fra Mauro was a monk versed in contemplative practice
and it was his own inner vision that brought light to the stories he heard.
Each traveler’s story brought into sharper relief some aspect
of his own inner world,
so that at times he no longer knew
“whether I was reflecting on earth’s existence or my own.”

It is this iterative process, of listening deeply to what is outside
and going deeply into one’s self, that animates the mapping process.
It is also this capacity to oscillate between discovery and doubt
that grounds the work in true inquiry.

In seeking information on group magic, we too began by listening.
We were aided by our association with the Fetzer Institute, which
in its own fashion has been at the crossroads of wisdom traditions
and a meeting place for consciousness travelers from all over the world.
Along with Jacob Needleman, others associated with Fetzer, such as
Tom Hurley and Juanita Brown, had also been exploring
principles and practices of collective intelligence
being generated by groups and gatherings around the world.

We began with stories from people we knew –
individuals who for decades have been working with groups
or who had a particular story to tell. They, in turn, passed us on
to others until we had gathered over 60 interviews,
each one a tiny gem. The conversations were dynamic, evocative,
alive with meaning and suggestive of questions and new insights
that required a disciplined form of discernment.

We discovered in our appreciation a new regard
for what might be hidden in plain view.
“Honor the voices,” became a mantra for listening deeply
to those we heard from and central to mapping the field.

The Creation of Centered on the Edge

In 2000, we produced a small spiral bound book that mapped
the shared themes, significance, and questions
that were cultivated from our interviews.
We featured eight separate “pattern stories” that expressed themes
and group dynamics that showed themselves repeatedly in our interviews.
Each one evocative and worth noting
for the domain of inquiry it opened.

Juanita Brown described a moment in a gathering
involving Cesar Chavez and a woman who described herself as
the least qualified to aid the group, both helping to birth
the United Farm Workers. In her story, we witnessed
the element of surprise and the quickening
of events leading to group magic.

Lauren Artress told of her discovery of the labyrinth
as an archetypal tool and its application to groups as a social sphere
for opening the “old mind.” She gave voice to the symbolic realm
of group life and the heightened appreciation for synchronicity
when operating in an imaginal field.

Angeles Arrien wove a tale about trickster energy
in groups and an actual story about a woman who wanted to be a princess
and discovered a real princess among the group members.
She helped point us toward the mythic patterns in groups
and the capacity to work creatively with paradox
and consciously with shadow dynamics.

Finn Voldtofte discussed the practical applications of collective intelligence,
describing a group conversation that brought together
architects, city planners, and the physically disabled to design
accessible buildings in Copenhagen.
In his words we came to grasp more clearly
how a collective intelligence can make conscious and useful
a group’s complexity and enable a greater capacity for action.

Tom Callanan recalled a life altering experience involving the mystery
of the group mind as a participant in a dialogue group.
Influenced by the ideas of the physicist David Bohm
and his description of an implicate order, the story gave expression to
a deep resonance that can be found in groups, often catalyzed
by expressions of vulnerability and storytelling.

Tom Hurley articulated principles of charodic systems as he recounted
the experience of fisherman, environmentalists, and local business owners
in a group venture to reconfigure their historically polarized relations.
His words were suggestive of practices, available to everyone,
that might lead to healing our deep collective wounds.

Arthur Colman, having just returned from South Africa,
reflected on the dark ecstatic energies of group life
and its manifestation in scapegoating. He raised provocative questions.
How can we ponder collective wisdom if we are prone to rush away
from what is most instinctual and most uncomfortable in ourselves?

Finally, Elena Diez Pinto and Adam Kahane evoked the mesmerizing power
of silence in a group seeking a better future for Guatemala.
Their story most directly touched on a group seeking and being touched
by a higher intelligence; an experience some in the group understood
as collective wisdom, others as a visceral connection to the divine.
In each of these stories we sought to render visible subtle realities
of group life, to illuminate critical distinctions, and to evoke
qualities associated with group resonance and group connection
that are most often discerned tacitly, indirectly - qualities
involving relationship, coherence, wholeness, wisdom,
emergence, healing, flow, and transformation.

The draft of a map began to take shape.

We began to perceive and then articulate the themes, significance,
and practices that we encountered in the interviews.
Themes such as synchronicity, storytelling, surprise,
love, and silence emerged as did elements of group life
that we described as quickening,
facing the darkness, and movement of the whole.
In expressing the significance of these themes,
we discovered consistent reference to healing, synergy,
and the power of connectedness, witnessing, and service to a larger whole.
And finally in perceiving behaviors that nested themselves in our stories,
we saw how people, individually and in groups, practiced skills
both hauntingly familiar yet foreign to most ordinary meetings.
Listening deeply, holding the space, non-attachment, whole body sensing,
the skillful use of symbolism and metaphor, all became part of
a new language for practices and concepts relevant to creating the space
(physically and psychically) for collective magic to emerge.

The Collective Wisdom Initiative

In 2001, fourteen months after Centered on the Edge appeared in print,
Fetzer’s Board of Directors provided funds for additional inquiry.
The purpose remained true to its beginnings, the task
of mapping the field of collective wisdom, its study and practice.
What were needed now were strategies and forms to:

     • enable people to see one another
     • enable people to connect with one another
     • enable people to help each other and gain access to useful ideas
     • enable people to see patterns and make visible their relationship to a larger field

What, in retrospect, may appear to be straight forward
appeared at the time as shrouded in mist, a navigation based
on principles of relationship - to people and ideas.
Thinking partners, websites, seed papers, circles of eight,
bedtime stories, and visual maps
were initially words and phrases
without actual substance, ideas without form or execution.
To borrow an expression from Peter Block, the answer to How is Yes.
We started where we could and followed where it led.

Beginning with the assumption that a field of inquiry already existed
with practitioners spread across the planet,
a website was needed to connect us and archive what was to be produced.
Under the stewardship of Dave Potter, the website took on a life of its own,
changing and shifting with each new element that emerged –
new learning, new technology, new material, and a growing vision
of what the site could look and feel like to those who came to it.
Principles of beauty, wholeness, utility, and accessibility –
qualities associated with Centered on the Edge –
now became navigational principles for the website.
The intent of the initiative, to make the field visible to itself
and enable people to see each other, came to literal manifestation.
Located on the site was a place where a person’s photograph and profile could be seen,
creating a community animated by what each person brought into the field,
what questions still fueled their excitement.

A shared belief in the importance of greeting and invitation shaped
the way members of the core team approached others.
Beginning with simple biographical information and
deepening with a curiosity and regard for their contribution,
staff of the initiative spoke with hundreds of people,
listening to what truly mattered to them, inquiring
about their activities, and sensing what gifts they brought.
Dozens of these contacts drew up profiles and submitted them to our website.
Others wrote papers or linked themselves in some way with our efforts –
offering critical feedback, helping us with new contacts,
and acting as light bearers, illuminating the way.

Guiding Principles of Approach

Somewhere in the course of unfolding this work and seeing more clearly
the breadth and richness expressed by people in the field,
the urge for clarity and the limitations of language arose side by side.
What is collective? What is wisdom?
What is intelligence? What is spiritual?
And if each of these words call for definitions,
imagine the collision of combinations – spiritual intelligence,
collective wisdom, collective intelligence, spiritual wisdom

each with their own subtle distinctions.
What makes collective wisdom distinct from wisdom
or wisdom distinct from spiritual intelligence?

Conceptually these distinctions in language have endless subtle discriminations,
depending on who in the field you talk with.
Rather than trying to settle too early on definitions,
we found ourselves guided by a set of five principles
that allowed us to approach the ambiguity creatively,
to deepen our own appreciation for distinctions, and to affirm a coherence
that framed the diversity of ideas and actions already taking place in the field.


First was the principle of Wholeness,
the dynamic interrelationship of part and whole,
individual and collective, an underlying pattern.
With this principle, there is humility
that we can glimpse and give expression to the whole,
but it can never fully be known or defined.
In honoring this first principle,
we consciously sought out ideas, images, stories
and symbols that created identification with a larger whole –
with nature, the earth, and cosmos.


Second was the principle of Beauty,
a principle associated with wholeness.
Beauty evokes the feeling domain,
becoming an emotional container, even cauldron of human longing.
Beauty as a metaphor for spiritual intelligence
is suggestive of something greater than itself.
In the act of creating and responding to beauty,
we began to experience the subtle realms,
perceiving pattern and respecting difference.
Beauty, in all its forms – storytelling, ritual, poetry,
photography, painting, music, nature –was an attractor
for qualities we associated with the field such as resonance,
coherence, sensory awareness, and subtle energy.
“Tears come to my eyes as I see FireHawk’s photographs
moving into the world,” wrote one of our core staff members.
We were guided to honor and weave together the gifts of artists
so that, together with words, we could glimpse new meaning
and awaken new sensibilities.

Blessing and Invocation

Third was the principle of Blessing and Invocation.
Resonating with its significance from an interview with Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi,
we took to heart his words that the “world is under blessed.”
From the time this idea was made audible, it held a piercing truth.
Those of us involved in recruiting or authorizing creative ventures
began a practice of offering or invoking blessing.
In retrospect, it became critical and natural to explicitly (outwardly) bless
the person or the particular task they were undertaking and
to also bless the larger shared work of our collective wisdom initiative.
This stance of blessing seemed intimately woven into our experience,
aiding our capacity to trust in what was unfolding - to change direction,
to hold to certain truths of our intent, and to allow varied forms of the work
to reveal itself. The energy of blessing embraces all who come in contact:

we call down with whatever merit is in our power
divine energies to support and hold each other,
to aid what needs most attention, and to further
what needs doing in the world. --Amen

Provoking the Daimon

A fourth operative principle was Provoking in each other
the Creative Daimon. In Greek mythology, the daimon was associated
with divine energies and fate, an intermediary between humans and gods.
Cast as a potential spiritual advisor and guardian (as Socrates claimed),
the daimon could also be experienced as an internal compulsion and source of disruption.
We saw time and time again the power of aligning people
with their deepest creative longings but also the challenges.
For decades, many of the people we turned to have been working
through ideas, feelings, and intuitions that cry out for expression.
By calling forth (evoking) what truly mattered, we helped activate
deep archetypal energies within each other – passions and compulsions -
about what we are here on earth to contribute.
The passionate element could be seen in the energy and excitement
of how each person took up their challenge, whether a seed paper
to articulate how innocence acts as an obstacle to witnessing the whole
or a survey of research in the field encompassing twenty interviews
or a book on an elder’s wisdom complemented by images to amplify its meaning.
We saw forces acting synchronistically to bring together
people, ideas, and resources into a collective psychic kiln.
The internal insistence that guided the journey
was unmistakable and joyous.

We also saw the disruptive element of this daimonic call,
evidenced by the long period of gestation and length of time
certain projects required for completion. It showed itself internally
in a sometimes obsessive insistence that something important was to come
but its content was yet to be formed and its means of creative expression still unknown.
Insistence of this kind, in the midst of managing daily responsibilities,
can be time consuming and personally disruptive but also disruptive psychically.
The individual wonders if a solution can be found in time.
The creative quagmire leaves one in anticipation
but also in frustration and doubt.

Courage and tenacity are required to pass through this stage.
We found that many projects came to fruition only through careful tending
with thinking partners, a process of covoking in which two or more people align
their thoughts together, seeking together what needs to be called forth.

Seeking the Edge

A fifth principle of our approach was an insistence
that we seek the Provocative Edge –
the articulation of what is known alongside the larger “not knowing.”
This creative paradox is central to wisdom traditions.
Answers by themselves can close the door to the larger whole,
to the infinite from which mystery and mysticism arise.
We needed to ride the edge of questions we could not predict answers for.
One of our elders offered an analogy:
“When I say ‘I know it already,’
I am looking through the rear view mirror.
When I say, ‘I don't know yet,’
I am looking ahead, through the windshield.”
Good questions act as attractors to wide open spaces.
The attention to the provocative edge
always returns us to a renewal of inquiry.
Yes, we can be glancing in the rear view mirror,
so we know where we came from, but our inquisitive eye
is to the open road ahead.

What was particularly illuminating about this approach
was that when we took the stance to be clear about what we knew,
the larger unknowing revealed itself. In other words, we had to learn
not to play games with questions - to generate lists of questions
as a form of distraction or to ask ones we already had answers for –
but instead to articulate what we knew in detail and with exquisite attention
as a way to earn our right to not know.

How paradoxical, to earn one’s right to not know.
“If I want to get to wisdom,” one of our elders offered,
“I have to be open to the nothing place.”

Collective Consciousness as a Legitimate Field of Study

But there is something that emerges
when a certain group energy begins to flow together.
There is a current among us happening.
That current is neither our being active or being passive.
That current, from the transpersonal perspective,
[allows] you to see the oneness,
the identity with all that we have –
then you say…there is in this connection
not what I’m doing to you or you are doing to me,
but [an experience that] is totally interactive.

--Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

It is now only looking backward that we can see
what has unfolded from our initial inquiry into group magic.
In beginning with the group as the unit of focus,
its member’s experience of energy, flow, connection
and identification with a larger embracing energy,
we stumbled onto a transpersonal dimension of group life,
what some call transpersonal sociology and
what we recognized as collective wisdom.
What elements constitute such a field?
How are the very linguistic confusions that defied our attempts for definitions
gesturing toward a new way of seeing groups
and the role of groups in varied social contexts?

Looking back, it is possible to recognize that we had a strong intuition
that many many people had the experience of group magic,
meaning participation in a group (or larger collective) that shifted
into some form of flow state, achieved together something that seemed impossible
or where members experienced a transpersonal moment
in silence or through an unexpected occurrence.
We also suspected that collective intelligence or co-intelligence
was understood, if not practiced consistently, by many groups
and explicitly a focus by innovators in the fields of organizational
development, process facilitation, and group dynamics.

For example, Juanita Brown, whose work has included developing
the methodology of the World Café, described elements of a collective intelligence
as anchored in dialogic inquiry, collaborative learning, and knowledge creation.
Collective intelligence is a function of the generative power of conversation
and through conversation a group deepens its capacity
for becoming conscious of its own complexity,
the combined knowledge of its members,
and its larger environment.

Similarly, Tom Atlee, founder of the Co-Intelligence Institute
has done ground breaking work in formulating group and collective strategies
that draw upon new understandings of wholeness
(which recognize elements of diversity, uniqueness, unity, and relationship)
and sacred traditions that draw upon spirit and heart wisdom
(grounded in the body and intimately tied to nature and divine forces).
Intelligence, in this context, suggests the fluidity of forms and varied facets
of a living, breathing intelligence - head and heart,
natural and sacred, scientific and religious,
practical and esoteric.

In drawing out these threads, we could see
a relational web of ideas, people, models, and emerging maps.
What was harder to describe was the interiority of group life,
the internal images, feelings, and free associative thoughts
that often arise spontaneously in individuals and yet
draw from a deep well of common human experience.

How does one describe interiority of a group and to what end?
In the fields of sociology, anthropology, and economics,
there is often an exterior quanta that can be measured,
allowing by degree a description of the group or larger collective being studied.
By contrast, the subjective and fluid interior of a group is difficult to know
in a sophisticated way. We had to ask ourselves
what quanta of the interior realms could be discerned
and by what measure could its manifestations be studied.

We were aided, of course, by contemplative and wisdom traditions
in which direct forms of knowing and revelation are central.
The introspective nature of Tibetan meditative practices, for example,
have been developed over thousands of years and its documentation
of the interior states of human consciousness, both written and oral,
is highly sophisticated. Similarly, indigenous traditions
from around the globe are derived from a collective orientation in which
only a thin membrane exists among the individual, the group, and nature.
Those who carry on such ancient traditions are living reminders
of the vibratory, felt connection between self and Self.
Ken Wilber, a leader in articulating an integral philosophy
which includes a collective interior domain, captures the poetry nested in such
collective and contemplative traditions:
“A ‘we’ seems to hold the heart of the Kosmos hidden in its embrace.”

There is within consciousness studies the concept of “interbeingness,”
what Buddhists call shunyata.
Although sometimes described as the experience of void or nothingness,
it might also be described as an altered state of awareness.
In this state, the typical boundaries of self and other are altered
and we experience an embrace, a flowing into,
a being part of something larger and more potent.
In the embrace of the ‘we’ there is a sense of revelation,
distinctions of inner and outer becomes less obvious.
In Tantric traditions, this experience of interbeingness
simultaneous with the experience of bliss is associated with enlightenment.
In groups, this awareness can be experienced
more as a “coming home” than a willful act on the part of the individual.
Could it be that the sense of flow, connection with others,
and experience of a larger unity described in our research
is in some form a mirror to this interior reality known through the ages?
Are there archetypal patterns that inform individual consciousness?
Can a “collective” consciousness be studied?

Empiricism, Phenomenology, and Resonance

Clearly one of the strong influences, directly and indirectly,
on the field of collective consciousness as a legitimate subject of study
has been Carl Jung. An explorer and “mapmaker” of the interior domain, Jung,
coming of age at the beginning of the twentieth century was influenced by
mystic, alchemical, and Gnostic sources as well as early discoveries
from quantum physicists. He was a pioneering scientist of the interior domain
and specifically the realm of archetypal patterns as a feature of the collective unconscious.

In 1937, he gave a lecture at Yale University in which he asserted,

“Notwithstanding the fact that I have been called a philosopher, I am an empiricist
and adhere to the phenomenological standpoint….concerned with occurrences,
events, experiences, in a word, with facts….
Psychological existence is subjective in so far as
an idea occurs in only one individual.
But it is objective in so far as it is established by a society-
by a consensus gentium.” (Psychology and Religion, pgs. 6,8)

Jung argued that the workings of the psyche adhere to certain patterns
or archetypes –archaic stuff –and are therefore capable of objective study.
The psyche is not simply a matter of willful human invention
but contains an autonomous region of human consciousness,
manifested in dreams and patterns of behavior.
The scientific exploration of the psyche and its contents is no different than
a zoologist who studies different species of animal.
“An elephant is true because it exists,” Jung argued,
it is “neither a conclusion nor a statement nor a subjective judgment of a creator.
It is a phenomenon.”
So too is the psyche, subjective though it may be
at a personal level, an objective phenomenon that can be studied.

Over sixty-five years later, there is indeed a growing body
of research associated with collective consciousness,
a concept related yet distinct from Jung’s map of the collective interior realm.
The Collective Wisdom Initiative commissioned Robert Kenny to document
where current scientific approaches lie. Interviewing or corresponding
with over twenty colleagues involved with the study of collective consciousness,
Kenny in his paper “What Can Science and the Wisdom Traditions Tell Us About
Collective Consciousness?
” offered a working definition:

“Collective consciousness is a mode of awareness, in which personal identification expands beyond the individual to the group and its task. Group members feel they are subjectively united, perceive themselves as mutually interdependent parts of a larger whole, and develop an authentic concern for the well being and the productive functioning of the group and its members.”

For purposes of defining scope, Kenny emphasized the expansion of identity
for a particular “group” as opposed to a study of inter-group phenomenon
or larger societies and nations. He points out, however, that the literature
described an evolution that leads to ever widening circles of identification.
He also noted that his emphasis is on collective consciousness, not collective wisdom,
a distinction that proves useful in delineating areas of focus.

Renee Levi, in her doctoral dissertation, also pursued study of highly expanded states
of group functioning that she came to call collective resonance. Believing deeply
that these occurrences happened every day but are neither reported nor even
understood as distinct phenomenon, she interviewed 34 people
about 32 separate groups ranging from a female police officer’s encounter
with three knife wielding men, to a construction crew,
to a military unit, to a dance class, to a deep sea fishing expedition,
to a high school English class, to a small soup shop.
In other words, she gained access to this phenomenon
across the gamut of human activity and forms of association.

Deciding to describe her findings as “resonance” as opposed to intelligence,
she hoped to distinguish the phenomenon from the often too narrow association
of intelligence with mental activity. Defining collective resonance instead as
“a felt sense of energy, rhythm, or intuitive knowing occurring in a group of human
beings that positively influences the way they interact toward a common purpose,”
she drew on three distinct ways of understanding resonance -
the physical sciences, psychology, and spirituality.
Levi emphasized the simultaneous shifting and expansion of boundaries,
internally experienced as a deeper and grounded connection to self,
and outwardly as an emotional resonance with group members and spirit.
In nearly every description was an experience of shifting from a primarily
cognitive or intellectual stance to one more associated with
the physical body, intuition, and spiritual sources.
And as in physical resonance, where the vibration of a taut string
can influence the frequency of a second, the felt experience of one individual
amplified and combined with the felt experience of others.

Increasingly, we found the field of collective consciousness
pointing us toward a larger more encompassing understanding
of the elements of the experience itself – flow, resonance,
perception of a greater unity – and the expanded social purposes
that might be available to groups consciously seeking such knowledge.
We also began to imagine this work as a herald of higher collective potentials
and as a way to appreciate the significance of a co-development that informs
both individuals and groups. The individual is not separate from
the consciousness of the group as a whole
and the group is not independent of the individual’s inner development.

They are in relationship.

The Individual in the Group

It has not always been an easy relationship.
Although Carl Jung helped pioneer an approach
to collective consciousness and its archetypal underpinnings,
he was deeply skeptical of groups themselves.
His irreverent comment that he would never be a “Jungian”
was genuinely reflective of his stance toward groups.
Those who followed him tended to study myth, symbols, and the collective
as background to the individual’s journey toward individuation.
It was left to others to study the actual operational dynamics of groups
and how, in particular, unconscious patterns develop and
inform individual fantasies and behavior in groups.

Early attention to group behavior focused on mobs and the diminishment
of individual consciousness relative to a group’s passions.
In 1921, Freud summarized the position of those early researches
in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego:

"A group is extraordinarily credulous and open to influence;
it has no critical faculty, and the improbable does not exist for it.
The feelings of a group are always very simple and very
exaggerated, so that it knows neither doubt nor uncertainty."
The group functioned as merely an echo chamber to the individual’s
most basic fears and irrational thoughts.

Those of us involved in the collective wisdom initiative have, from the start,
attempted to make sense of the pathologic and darker side of group life.
One would have to live in great seclusion to be unaware of the
patterned forms of dysfunction that visit groups sporadically
in the form of scapegoating, racism, and war and in the
perennial disruptions of group life involving ineffectiveness,
interpersonal frictions, and group bumbling.
The exploration of collective consciousness, group magic,
and co-intelligence must be mapped alongside a deep sophistication
of its shadow phenomenon without losing one’s way
or becoming fatalistic about the destiny of human nature.

A Mapmaker of the Interior Realm

One of the earliest map makers of an interior collective
that contained both light and shadow was a man named Wilfred Bion.
Born in India at the turn of the twentieth century to British parents, he was raised,
as was the custom, by their Indian “ayah,” a combination servant and nanny.
Sent off, at the age of eight to a private school in Britain, he spent ten years
in an elite and all male institution. His orientation to the adult world was the
beginning of World War I in which he volunteered for duty. Serving with
distinction and decorated for bravery, he was a front line soldier and later
a tank commander promoted to the rank of major.

These were the exterior facts of his life but an inner life was also taking shape,
one knowledgeable about the marginal realms of membership in groups,
chaos, order, exile, and a familiarity with being neither wholly this or that.
The war, like it did for so many, scarred him and left him searching
for a way to navigate beyond the waste of human life.

Like many explorers of new realms, Bion’s map
(speaking metaphorically) is not always easy to follow
and the ambiguities and paradoxes that lie within
can be attributed to both the mapmaker and the terrain he is describing.
Working as a psychiatrist under the sponsorship of the British Army
and later as member of the Tavistock Clinic in London,
Bion’s contribution to collective wisdom was anchored in his belief
of a “feeling intelligence” possible in groups.
He helped pioneer a group methodology for the treatment
and rehabilitation of soldiers traumatized by war.
Analytically trained, Bion bridged the chasm between the perception
of the group as a mindless echo chamber of emotion or conversely,
a setting in which individuals could be behaviorally geared up for rational behavior.
He did it by creating a group methodology in which he took up a role
as a relentless mirror to a group’s discomfort with ambiguity.
In mythic language, he was a shapeshifter, shaman, and wounded healer.

Bion proposed that groups acted from deep underlying patterns related to
managing and binding anxiety, and he named three such patterns
that he found persistent. Each had their own constellation of emotion
and fantasy and each paradoxically aided member’s evasion of the group’s task
even as it created an almost instinctive and unconscious common bond among them.
The three patterns that he named were Dependency, Fight/Flight, and Pairing.

In brief, a group operating under the sway of Dependency acts “as if”
it can be sustained by a leader, a book, or a set of ideals.
Members respond primarily to the source of their dependence,
acting passively toward their own inner complexity
as well as toward other group members
and the external environment.

A Fight pattern sets in motion a constant series of battles among its members
or with external groups. Conversely, Flight is demonstrated by actions and
fantasies related to getting away from the source of discomfort, often
through distractions or avoidance of some kind.

A group operating from the basic assumptive life of Pairing is often infused
with hopefulness and expectation that a new idea or solution will be born
that saves the group from a current state of despair or destructiveness.
The group’s capacity to assess or even focus on the current state of the group
and/or its relationship to the larger environment is constrained by
its need to believe something wonderful is about to happen.
As such, the group avoids the discomfort of genuine engagement
with each other and its work.
The source of these constellated myths,
and here we begin to see the bridge to collective wisdom,
was an unspoken fear associated with uncertainty.
This fear creates an environment of intolerance for what is unknown,
including the thoughts that might arise spontaneously in one’s own mind.
Fear inhibits all aspects of group life, including the spontaneity necessary
for new patterns to emerge. Collective wisdom suggests just the opposite,
an emotional and psychic field that is spacious,
one in which the unknown can arise,
intuition activated, and fear openly addressed.
It is through such openness to vulnerability
that fears can be assessed and addressed
and personal and collective work furthered.
This is consistent with Tom Hurley’s paper on archetypal practices
for personal and collective potential and Renee Levi’s research
on collective resonance. For Levi, the expression of vulnerability
(the recognition of frailty and limitation), on both a personal and a group level,
is one of the most cited “shifters” into the experience of resonance.
For Bion it is the very persistence, resiliency, and
near inevitability of these constraining patterns that held
the possibility of genuine transformation.

Bion’s map of the group not only provided examples of group constellations
but explicitly offered a way to see both individual and group dynamics.
He referred to a capacity for “binocular vision,”
one in which the hidden wholeness of the group –
the interior human experience of its members and the
outer behavior expressed - could be glimpsed by
allowing one lens to be focused on the individual and the other
on the group. Imagine such an optical device?
With both “eyes” open,
we see something utterly new and unfamiliar -
the individual-in-the-group. The individual,
already a creature of the group from birth, can now
be seen as a creature of a social group at a next level of complexity.
And just as the individual must learn what fate they have,
so too must the group member discern what role –
hero, scapegoat, whiner, savior – the group dynamic invites
and the member is willing to take up.
Imagine Peter attempting to collaborate in a group acting as if
a battle must be waged or Chris wanting to assert her own beliefs
in a group swayed by dependency on a leader?
To be awake to the interior life of a group creates new freedoms
and new challenges. The individual, with awareness,
can have a heightened sense of boundaries
and the potential to impact on a group’s trajectory.

On the other hand, we can also see the extraordinary power
of the interiority of group life on the individual.
What is now commonly referred to as culture
and is implicit in Bion’s phrase “group mentality,”
the group exerts an extraordinary psychic pull on individuals
even to the degree of influencing their interior thoughts,
fantasies, and emotional life. A group agitated to action out of fear
would indeed act as an emotional echo chamber
and its appearance would be that of a mob.
The individual who thought otherwise would face
not only outward difficulty in engaging rational discussion but
might face psychically the impenetrability of the group’s interior core.
What concerned Bion were the conditions and human qualities that
might allow light to penetrate the interior core and
initiate genuine transformation.

His vision of a feeling intelligence meant that we each could become skilled,
to an exquisite degree, in sensing the subtle and ever changing moods,
intuitions, and emotions that arise in us while being in groups.
These include boredom, irritation, competition, envy, even hatred
as well as generosity, love, and patience.
Could we sense in ourselves the moment the need to do something stirred
and map it against the impression of the group’s need for constructive action
or a false savior? Could we notice how it feels to be on the receiving end
of a group’s admiration or
keep our wits about us when we are subject to contempt?

These capacities for Bion were building blocks in finding a middle way
for participation in groups, a stance between saint and sinner,
and liberating groups from polarization,
ineffectiveness and even violence.

Bion’s Contribution to Collective Wisdom

Bion’s contribution to a map of collective wisdom included
three elements that we saw again and again in our exploration and seed papers.
First was the significance of being in situations where
a higher or common good was demanded,
second the capacity to act spontaneously in the moment,
what Bion called thinking under fire, and finally
the legitimate role of research into the interiority of groups.

The consciousness of a higher purpose and the all-encompassing
nature of a common good draw us to the heart of collective wisdom
because we see in practical and useful ways that we belong to each other.
The inclination for survival of the self comes into creative tension with
a larger, more expansive vision of what the group might accomplish.
Cooperation becomes, as authors Ann Svendsen and Myriam Laberge
articulated in their research on stakeholder strategy, a way out of “social messes.”
Similarly, Tom Hurley’s writing on timeless ways of evoking
personal and collective capacity identifies clarifying intent
and inviting guidance as archetypal practices to invoke a higher good
and to distill personal and group purpose.
Quoting the Dalai Lama, Hurley makes the connection between
interior intent of the individual and the fate of the whole:

“We must have a pure, honest, and warm-hearted motivation,
and on top of that, determination, optimism, hope, and the ability
not to be discouraged. The whole of humanity depends on this motivation.”

Finally Kate Regan, herself trained in the group relations methodology
that was Bion’s legacy, reveals through interviews with practitioners in the field
the courage required to see social benefit beyond the conflicts
and obstacles of the moment.

A second element for Bion was that individuals could “think under fire,”
meaning a capacity to be in the here and now even amidst
the unknown and unknowable elements of group life.
Without this faith in personal presence, we are left always
putting together what happened in hindsight.
Thinking in the here and now requires both a cognitive way
to hold the task, structure, and limitations of time
in one’s mind and body as well as maintaining
a feeling intelligence for a group’s emotional rhythm.
What Bion sought was no less than a way to put Humpty Dumpty
back together again, a way to reveal the fragmentation of both
task and relationships as part of a hidden wholeness.
To do this, Bion believed our individual awareness of group processes
needed to be fully awakened, so that the individual could truly act
constructively and spontaneously in the moment.

Finally, Bion left behind a legacy that the group, and specifically
the interior realm, was a legitimate object of study,
scientifically, socially and morally.
Like Jung, his data was the phenomenon of inner experience
and the persistence of outward behavior.
He had a unique capacity to tolerate the darkest, most horrific aspects
of the human species without succumbing to fatalism,
and he accomplished this through an uncanny competence
to bear ambiguity and the unknown.
In anecdotal tales of his life he was associated with
Samuel Beckett, who was Bion’s patient before going on
to write Waiting for Godot and other plays.
Like Beckett, Bion was a dramatist of the interior realm,
a wispy shadowy terrain that must be perceived often by what is not stated
or by what has yet to emerge. Shrouded as it may be,
the knowledge of its importance is key to liberation.

Collective Wisdom and Spiritual Intelligence

Having stood on the shoulders of early explorers and guided by
a growing network of scholars, teachers, artists,
and practitioners, what can be glimpsed of wisdom?
How does wisdom reveal itself when viewed
through the collective eyes of hundreds and even thousands?
Can we imagine such a thing?
Certainly we can imagine a gathering, physically or virtually,
of individuals representing wisdom as a state of mind or being.
One by one, they would come forward, poets and philosophers,
scholars and social activists, vocalists and storytellers.
Some would come in robes, some beating drums, and others
declaring they could not possibly represent wisdom
regardless of their dress, or words, or even deeds.
Possibly, some would address themselves to an underlying plan
in the cosmos and others to a more fruitful relationship with nature.
Some might review recent findings from imaging of the brain and others
the instinct for life that arises from the imaginal realm.
We would have, in a literal sense, a collection of wisdom
traditions and practitioners.

What makes something “collective?”
How might we distinguish the vital and necessary knowledge
that such a collection of individuals embody from “collective wisdom”?
Collective wisdom draws on the catalytic power of the “third thing,”
that notion of a group having something to do.
This is why from the beginning of our inquiry we looked for groups,
communities, and networks that might have some form of social impact
in trouble spots of the world - in places like Haiti, the Middle East,
Guatemala, South Africa, and Northern Ireland but also
in New England, Canada, and Denmark.
Wisdom, associated with discernment,
artful perception of reality, sagacity, even prophetic sight,
has an added dimensionality when applied to groups
who are addressing the pain, paralysis, and polarization
broken loose in the world.
Indeed, the world calls out for qualities long associated with
the feminine archetype of wisdom, the goddess Sophia,
who provided counsel during times of prosperity and
comfort in anxiety and grief.

The inquiry into collective wisdom revealed certain
distinguishing characteristics about groups that are only
faintly mentioned in the existing literature.
First is the deep regard for the uniqueness of each group,
the way each group has its own scent and its own rhythm.
We became far more alert to distinctive moments in groups,
such as when they are reactive to external events
or internally turbulent or shifting into greater resonance.
We had to continually remind ourselves that neither our concepts
of wisdom nor the phenomenon of group life is a static entity,
but rather one that is dynamic and evolving.
What we did perceive as common was that groups are
conductors and conduits of a larger knowing,
that a group could, under certain conditions,
experience a state of flow and expanded sense of accomplishment,
contribution, and deep affection - for others as well as all of life.

The artful perception of reality arises spontaneously,
in both individuals and groups.
We may experience ourselves entering into
a different state of being and a being with all that arises.
Associated with this stance was a deepening understanding
of the mind and body as instruments of truth.
Just as Bion proposed a feeling intelligence that allowed subtle nuances
of emotion to be noticed, so too does a body awareness and
meta awareness of mind increase our capacity
of attunement –with ourselves and others.
Imagine such capacities as an expanded sensing,
feeling, hearing, touching, intuiting, and
embodying what is coming into being.
We become alert to a transpersonal element
that perceives light in each of us.

Yet, this understanding of emergence, flow, and
potentiality in groups has to live alongside
an equally compelling description of collective wisdom
as subject to troubling forces from within and without.
We had to become comfortable with the inevitable discomfort,
struggle, and ambiguity of groups as turbulent vessels
for collective wisdom. In a seed paper by Arthur Colman,
the significance of direct revelation and ecstatic states
is shown to have a shadow element, one of divinely ordained violence.
Colman speaks of collective wisdom as knowledge of truth
gained through personal and collective experience.
But one, he submits, that emphasizes “demonstrated action in the world”
and is modified “by an iterative process of reflective consciousness and
discerning judgment.” In other words, at some point
in the process of group life, we have to talk to each other,
make judgments, take action, reflect on the consequences
of our actions and talk again.
And we must do this while mediating the perception of threat
from inside and outside the group.

Collective wisdom is earned over time,
and parallel to individual development,
has multiple streams of development (social, moral,
spiritual, psychological, cognitive, sexual, emotional)
that do not evolve at the same pace.
The faith in the potentiality of groups must be joined with
a relentless capacity to look upon the failures of the human species
to keep its nest habitable and its hands off each other’s throats.
Buckminster Fuller pointed out that, biologically,
we learn from the mistakes we make.
Human consciousness has arisen over millions of years
of earth’s history and one of its accomplishments is
that we might now know its fragility.

The Mapping of the Mind

In the Fall of 2003, sitting together in a well appointed
auditorium in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a half circle of esteemed
cognitive scientists, Buddhist scholars, and monks sit
respectfully surrounding His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama.
Standing at the microphone in front and to the side of the half circle
is one of the lecturers beginning his talk.
And then, suddenly, there is a loud clapping of sound and wind
that echoes everywhere throughout the hall.
The Dalai Lama has sneezed into his open mike.
The stunned silence that follows in the wake of the sneeze
is interrupted further by gales of laughter coming from the Dalai Lama.
Everyone in the hall roars in response.
Humor, humanity and resonance have entered
alongside a careful, even methodical investigation
into how the relationships of mind, brain, and body
generate images, attend to emotion, and influence intention.

The initiative associated with collective wisdom is influenced
directly and indirectly by new discoveries
in the cognitive sciences, biology, and physics.
We know that mental models of reality deeply influence
expectations of groups and that some joining of ancient wisdom
traditions and western science is a natural next “edge” to be explored.
Western science, by and large, has emphasized external influences
on human behavior and the cognitive and neurosciences have been mapping,
in particular, measurable brain activity using various imaging technology.
What is less developed is a sophisticated sense
of the interiority of the mind itself
and the relationships among perception, expectation, and reality.
For this, the sophistication lay with indigenous traditions
ranging from Tibetan Buddhist to Native American.

Francisco Varela, Director of Research at the laboratory
of Cognitive Neurosciences and Brain Imaging in Paris, and
the Dalai Lama were two unlikely explorers to meet
at the crossroads between ancient wisdom and modern science.
What metaphysical sneeze brought these two together?
The Dalai Lama, who until he was a teenager believed
the world was flat, began seeking scientists to test
his belief that ethical behavior was inherent to human nature,
independent of religious doctrine.
And Varela, whose doctoral dissertation concerned
information processing in the compound eye of insect retinas
had pioneered research in the “neurophenomenology" of human consciousness.
Together, they formed the strange attractor that brought together
an improbable group of philosophers, physicists, psychologists,
neuroscientists, Buddhist scholars and monks.
For over ten years, and continuing after the death
of Varela in 2001, a fluid network of these men and women
met to advance their unique perspectives, debate, and
attempt to discover common ground.
Western scientists took their research into new directions
and monks agreed to be tested under laboratory conditions.
The conference in Cambridge was the first public
demonstration of their efforts.

The new mind sciences lead naturally into questions
once thought of as in the province of spirituality.
The experience of altruism, compassion, and
emotional calm, typically viewed as subjective phenomena,
have correlates in the imaging and study of the organic brain.
At the same time, a new spiritual vision lends itself to the incorporation
of material evidence, measurable phenomena once viewed
as separate or irrelevant to religious belief.
The Dalai Lama’s repeated insistence that if science could show
a Buddhist assumption wrong, that assumption would be discarded
was matched by western science’s willingness to examine
the limitations of objectivity. A common ground was forged not by
what was in agreement but by the courage to not know together.
The maps that once seemed so clear are being redrawn.
How we think about the nature of mind and a group’s capacity
to function at more complex states of awareness
is at the beginning of a very long learning curve.

Dawning of Free Communities

There is a further insight, however, from this collaboration
of scientists and monks relevant to the collective wisdom initiative,
specifically to the particular usage of the word “collective.”
Arthur Zajonc, a physicist who was one of the moderators
at the conference in Cambridge, is also the author of our seed paper titled the
Dawning of Free Communities for Collective Intelligence
(as well as the book, The New Physics and Cosmology:
Dialogues With the Dalai Lama). In it he posits that
we live in a time when voluntary associations are possible,
like never before, that transcend kinship, geography, and vocation.
Imagine hundreds, thousands of such circles, networks and
associations coming together voluntarily, based not only on
shared interest but also on a conscious commitment to the common good,
to a form of love that encompasses all of life?

What if this improbable partnership among
Buddhists and scientists is but one example of a new kind
of collective brought about to heal the tears in the communal fabric?
We are not suggesting that this is entirely a conscious or willful effort,
as if there is agreement among all about such a global purpose.
Indeed one of the odd, if not tenser moments at the conference in Cambridge
was a blunt question from a scientist to a Buddhist monk about
his participation in the joint work: “What’s in it for you?”
The monk, somewhat taken back, answered forcefully
that if he could make some contribution
to a healthier and happier world,
his own work was being furthered.

There were certainly moments, like the example above,
when one wondered what these people were doing in the same room together?
Yet there were also times in which a great affection infused the proceedings,
as if they were being held together by something far more important
than any one individual or any one set of ideas could embody.
Zajonc asks us to imagine collectives that form from
“loving relationship that honors the specificity of individuals
yet lifts them out of the contingencies of time and space,
that is, beyond kinship, vocation, and geography.”
Is it possible that this network of scientists and Buddhists
is some kind of foreshadowing - collectives that will feel called
to come together on behalf of the planet.
It may be spontaneous and self organizing,
like the coming together of artists in Northern Ireland as hostilities diminished,
or in circle gatherings like those spreading across the United States,
or in labyrinth networks forming around the world, but
in whatever outward appearance it takes, it will represent
a relatively new species of collective that the planet has never seen before.

Group as Art Form

“There has to be a training to help you open your ears so that you can begin to hear
metaphorically instead of concretely.” - Joseph Campbell

How might the group be an art form?
From the beginnings, the collective wisdom initiative held an intuition that
the expression of spiritual intelligence and the very nature of gathering
were linked with art, beauty and wholeness.
Jacob Needleman’s provocation that the group is an art form
affirmed our direction.
The work that has unfolded from this stance of attention
has furthered our conviction.
Art can reveal in a color palette,
a physical gesture, or a rhythmic melody
the symbolic key to open the metaphoric mind.
And it is through this opening that a particular perception
of wholeness is awakened,
that we see
just how we are an organ of the larger organism.

The seeking of a new art form was an explicit aspect
of the study and experience of collective wisdom.
In other words, the fruits of our work needed to provide evidence
in a visual, tactile, even vibratory way
of creative juxtapositions of complementary and contrasting forms.
If a group could simultaneously be a vehicle for
pragmatic action and a container for spirit, then our “products”
could be both concrete and metaphoric,
disciplined in their underlying thinking and poetic in execution.
The art form of the collective was an initiation into ambiguity,
tolerating the unknown and unformed
and allowing the unexpected to arise.

One example of this process was the development
of our Wisdom of Our Elders Series. Initially drawn from interviews with elders
Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Paula Underwood, excerpted text
was woven together to create an extended meditation
on themes such as “Togethering” and “Deep Listening.”
We then partnered with graphic artists
affiliated with the Rhode Island School of Design
to create color and visual images that would amplify and augment
the meanings found in the text.
The result was small palm sized “illuminated texts”
rendered with simple elegance,
each serving the distinctive voice of the elder.
Yet another example was the creation of
the collective wisdom initiative’s “Declaration of Intent.”
Calling on the partnership of dozens of our colleagues in the field,
a statement was written to weave together the deeper significance and
qualities associated with this emerging field.
Included was an invitation for all those who felt called to join us
in the study and practice of collective wisdom
and the associated field of collective consciousness.
We created a small book from the text of the declaration,
just seven hundred and eleven words.
Working with a letterpress printing process and
hand stitched binding for the cover, we created a book
with pages that remind one of the feel of soft leather
and the look of something old and precious.

In these examples, and many others, we sought
to demonstrate that metaphoric and symbolic thinking could be
an underlying structure that provokes new images
and constellates innovative forms.
Qualities associated with collective wisdom –
emergence, self organization, intuition, flow, resonance –
have their analogues in the creation of art –whether in groups, jazz, or visual image.
Rachel Bagby encouraged us to become vibra lingual, seeing and hearing
the world as a vast interconnected vibratory web of sound, color,
meaning, repetition, breath, intention, and movement.
The group as an art form is an invitation to become, more consciously,
constructive creators and responsible receptors of these vibratory relationships.

The Art of Human Association

A second extension of the group as an art form principle involves
the structure, design, and purpose of groups themselves.
Needleman, whose letter to the Fetzer Institute so inspired us,
was deep in preparation for his book The American Soul:
Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders
Needleman had found, in the democratic form of government
and specifically the Constitution, an art form that rivaled the “cathedrals,
epics, poems, music [and] systems of philosophy” that signified
the historic achievement of other nations and cultures over time.
“It is through the group, the community, that moral power and a higher level of intelligence can be sought,
if only we can discover the way of constructing association with others….”
For Needleman, the art of working together,
coming together, of human association that has within it a higher purpose
is the most essential art form of an emergent humanity.
It is what the future of humanity rests on.

At the heart of this art form that might be called “democracy”
is a principle that a diversity of views can survive together,
resisting all seductions for power to be concentrated in the hands of the few?
So what might be an example of an intelligence that does not require despotic rule
or the victory of one perspective over all others?
Needleman quotes from an extraordinary speech
written by Benjamin Franklin and delivered to the Constitutional Convention.
In it Franklin explains why he supports the outcome of the Convention even
as he failed to win many of his own key platforms.
How he does so reveals, with exquisite humor,
the greater intelligence at work:

     Most men, indeed, as well as most sects in religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them, it is so far error. Steele, a Protestant, in a dedication, tells the Pope, that the only difference between our two churches in their opinions of the certainty of their doctrine, is the Romish Church is infallible, and the Church of England is never in the wrong. But although many private persons think almost as highly of their own infallibility as that of their sect, few express it so naturally as a certain French Lady, who, in a little dispute with her sister, said, “But I meet with nobody but myself that is always in the right.” Je ne trouve que moi qui aie toujours raison.
     In these sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution, with all its faults – if they are such; because I think a general government necessary for us…..

For Needleman, it is not so much that Franklin, or the rest,
were so noble or pure. They were not.
It is they represented, in the shaping of a form of government that still survives,
the “art and power of the community.”
And to accomplish that, they had to restrain the urge
to be utterly certain of their opinion or
perpetually triumphant in their dealings.
They had to accept being neither “infallible”
or “never in the wrong.”

For Needleman, the act of constraint is not a compromise
with higher principles or concession to pragmatic necessities.
Instead, it signals a fundamental shift in relationship,
from self (or sect) absorption towards community.
What Needleman describes as the “metaphysics of democracy”
is a notion deeply consonant with collective wisdom –
a human vision in service of a higher purpose,
an agreement to be associated as equals, and
an intentionality to struggle with the attachment to one’s own opinion.
This is what Franklin seeded in the consciousness of a nation,
that it was possible to see a farther shore than one’s own attachment to opinion.
Shorn of religious triumphalism, Enlightenment rhetoric, or
philosophical abstraction, the naked truth of democracy lay in
an ability to consider the ideas of others.
How fragile. How counter intuitive,
that the individual might benefit from the health of the whole.
On a sweltering day in 1787,
that principle is exactly what helped birth a nation.

There is a second and equally powerful message
in Needleman’s evocation of the group as an art form.
Art, as far back as we can tell, has always existed on two planes;
a horizontal axis involving its material elements and the craft of the artist
(to shape wood, words, pigment, metal, stone)
and a second, vertical axis that joins art with the divine.
As one of the pathways to the divine,
art allows the transpersonal element to be felt,
a physical imprint of a larger universal pattern.

The group also exists on two planes.
There is a horizontal axis which inevitably involves the material
and social realities of the group. These include power, privilege,
inclusion, affiliation, and access to resources.
These elements were amply on display during the sweltering days that led
to the creation of the Constitution.
Needleman takes pains to acknowledge these realities
which included an agreement to sustain slavery as a practice.
But he also perceived a vertical access, held consciously by some,
including founders such as Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin.
They held to an uncanny understanding of the whole
as more than the sum of its parts.

The craft of government is to shape a system of governance
out of the raw material of warring factions,
to create forms that can last.
The two houses of Congress to mediate differences in representation
for small and large states
is one example
of a system of checks and balances created at the Constitutional Convention -
a work of art that has lasted over two hundred years.

But just as important, Needleman finds a vital symbol
of the transpersonal element in the creation of the Constitution.

He finds a process that still calls to us from “that blistering Philadelphia summer –
the process of a group of ordinary human beings listening to each other,
not as people usually listen, but as people can listen:
from a source deeper in themselves
which opens them not only to the thoughts and views of their neighbor,
but to something wiser and finer in themselves
and, perhaps, in the universe itself.”

Beyond the attachment to one’s own opinion
or obligatory conversation between two people or two sub-groups
is a third thing.
In Needleman’s map of the group,
that third thing is the transcendent element,
a common nature that is impersonal to either party.
Impersonal in the sense that it is not exclusively or even predominately
about personal relationship but rather
a recognition of the divine imprint that, no matter how faint,
is discernible in each of us.
When we encounter each other,
truly confront the truth of the other,
flow into each other,
we are in that moment experiencing holiness
and joining with the divine.
This vertical element, a potentiality in all relationships,
shifts the capacity of each participant to a higher order
of perception and judgment.
This capacity of human association
heals the fragmentation of thought and emotion
that arises from the struggle to survive on the material plane
and it expands a group’s capacity to invent new forms.
It is the subtle realm of the group’s existence,
and when it becomes conscious,
the hidden wholeness of a group can be revealed.

Philosophers and scientists
from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Martin Buber
to Jacob Needleman to the physicist David Bohm (who with Needleman
began to discuss the transpersonal element of dialogue) have sought
to map this interior domain of group life.
In language that has remarkable resemblance to current
researchers in collective consciousness, Emerson
over one hundred fifty years ago described it this way:
“And so in groups where debate is earnest, and especially on high questions,
the company become aware that the thought rises to an equal level in all bosoms,
that all have a spiritual property in what was said, as well as the sayer.
They all become wiser than they were.
It arches over them like a temple, this unity of thought….
All are conscious of attaining to a higher self possession.
It shines for all.”

Here lies an equal and opposing truth to groups
as associations that diminish rational thought and amplify reactive emotive life.
The sacred art of groups is their capacity to reveal a transcendent presence
that makes luminous a higher power.
Paradoxically, it may require the capacity to bear
the insufferable views of others,
to sit in a blistering heat with windows shuttered,
to digest the dark and bitter rind of our own prejudices.
The path is strewn with obstacles.
Yet, the light that comes forth bathes all.
Something finer and wiser is brought forward
that no one can truly claim as his or her own.
All are conscious of a higher self possession, in Emerson’s words,
but a Self that no longer sees only separation.

Needleman’s vision of the group as art form is an explicit invitation
to view the co-development of the individual and the group.
Even as he re mythologizes the founding figures of American democracy,
he acknowledges that democracy is still but a form, an outer structure.
For what? Certainly the root of liberty is freedom
to act from one’s own conscience.
Democratic ideals lose their bearings the moment
tyranny in the form of corruption or
seductions from the social world impose themselves
on the interior compass of individual moral judgment.
The group can be a guardian of that fundamental right to think, feel,
and act in accordance with one’s own inner guidance.
Yet, for Needleman the interiority of the individual is not defined by
personal whim or impulsive preference any more than
the group is a function of cordial personal relations.
We each have a responsibility to discover our deeper nature,
to free ourselves from the false tyrants of our own ego structure.
And it is these cross currents,
of the group seeking liberty from tyranny and
the individual seeking knowledge of a true nature
that both the group and individual are born anew.


© 2004 Alan Briskin

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