In late 1993, I participated in my first behavioral lab at IIM Ahmedabad. Titled ERI, in ways more than one, this lab marked my life both for the good and the ‘not-so-good’. Suffice it to say, that the lab ended up reinforcing my deep ambivalence to success, capitalism, and the world of becoming, and I emerged as what was perhaps true at that time, and yet I was blind to it – a confused, lonely, angry, and frozen young man with a very little idea of what life is all about. ERI teetered me over the edge, and with associated trauma, loneliness, and pain, to seek, to experiment, to gamble and most importantly to get lost … in a journey to find something anew.
In 1998, I was back again at the Sumedhas Summer Program for my internship – a two week lab, with a cognitive intent of becoming skilled in behavioral work. I was carrying a lot more baggage this time and immersed myself into a process-work space similar to ERI that had pushed me into a painful oblivion may years ago.
Was I keen to come back – not really – for unconsciously, this was another mad gamble, a veritable straw for the drowning me clutching for hope and redemption. However this particular process work experience was intense yet benign – it, through the energy of the group and the facilitators, generated healing, hope, and new insights – an intensely magical experience for myself. It also helped me acknowledge the gifts offered by the earlier lab in 1993 – the gifts of search, experiment, and self reliance.
Looking back, both these labs evoked a lifetime commitment towards working with groups – whether through the process-work spaces / labs offered by Sumedhas or through group relations conferences in India and abroad. Each time in a lab space, I have experienced a quality of certain magic unfold – an energy that cannot be evoked by one individual, insights that cannot be monopolized by one individual, and an intense sense of love and companionship that cannot be offered by one or the other.
I write this blog for any reader who is curious to understand how such spaces are created, sustained, and deployed and the conditions for unleashing the magic that I have personally experienced. Let me begin by differentiating Reflexivity from Reflection that happens in a process work space.
Reflexivity versus Reflection
Very often, we invite someone to a process work space by saying that it allows for deep reflection on one’s identity (who am I?), one’s socialization and role-taking, and new choice making. Yes, most such spaces offer time and energy for reflection – such times are rare these days for those of us who are playing multiple roles and engaging with diverse systems. The gift of reflection is valuable as it allows us to step off the treadmill for some time, and review, recalibrate, and renew ourselves. We feel good about it.
However, lab spaces such as Sumedhas Summer Program offer a lot more than the gift of Reflection. For many of us, it offers us to examine our own ‘Reflexivity’. Allow me to build on the narrative of Reflexivity for it is important.
The principle of reflexivity was first mooted by William Thomas in 1923 as the Thomas Theorem – ‘the situations that men define as true, become true for them.’ In Sociology, Reflexivity is an act of ‘self-reference’, where it refers to the ability or capacity of the individual (agent) to recognize forces of socialization, and change his or her place in the social structure.
- An individual with low reflexivity would be shaped largely by the environment with no real choices for self.
- An individual with high reflexivity may actually shape himself or herself in terms of roles, desires, politics, values and so on.
Thus Reflexivity, to put it simply, is to understand the lens with which one looks at self and the environment or the context, and in referencing this lens, creates new meanings, new intents, and new actions for self. Reflexivity is the idea that a person’s thoughts and ideas tend to be inherently biased. In other words, the values and thoughts of a person will be represented in their work, in their relationships, and in their choices.
Let me start with a simple example – an individual carrying the memories of being victimized in the past, often ends up unconsciously setting himself or herself as the victim because the current lens of looking at phenomena create a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ – a process referred to by both Merton and Karl Popper.
Unless there is sufficient energy invested into engaging with the lens of looking at self and the world, and transforming the lens itself, chances are that labs become a space for mere catharsis, breakdowns, and pseudo-wombs, and once the person goes back, processes of victimization continue.
My experience of the ‘Magic unfolding’ …
I have always considered myself to be a ‘minority’ in almost all contexts. The identity of being a minority brought with it huge tides of feelings – of being excluded, or of being attacked (by the powerful majority) or of being powerless and impotent, or of being continuously misunderstood.
I would view all my systemic contexts with the lens of being the minority, and would end up bemoaning the usual narratives – that of politics of the majority, that of the insensitivity of the larger world, that of being the underdog fighting a losing battle against the Goliath.
It took me many years to realize what the lens was really offering to me – an excuse of not living to my own potential, and a fear of owning my own power. The minority lens allowed me to insulate myself from all accusations as well as all invitations – invitations of love, inclusion, and membership. The minority lens allowed me to let go of being responsible!
It as only in a GRC (IFSI) in France, as I slipped into another cycle of tantrums – of being the Indian minority in a largely Anglo-Saxon community – when the absurdity of the lens came out so vividly. I still remember Ana, my partner, who helped me engage with reflexivity, with a compassion and love, where I was able to let go of this lens.
The moment was intense, traumatizing, and also joyous, as I realized how conveniently I would use the lens of reflexivity to avoid action prerogatives that lay ahead. It took me many process work-spaces to comprehend the enormity of this realization.
Only a group, and very often stranger-groups, allow for this to happen
Magic that happens in a stranger group sitting together in a Sumedhas Summer Program, is when groups engage, share, and dialogue on the lens that each brings in with herself or himself. Authenticity and Reflexivity go hand in hand for the space itself creates multiple lens of looking at the same narrative. It is the collective energy invested by the group to tear down the socialized defenses of each individual, and to reach into the ‘lens’ of the actor is when something new emerges.
A Caveat …
However, I am also aware that sometimes groups don’t delve deeper for working with reflexivity is a lot tougher than working with reflection. When one is stuck with Reflection, one becomes dependent upon the facilitator (often called as faculty) for new reflections, new insights, and new knowledge. This dependency is dysfunctional and the lab space is remembered merely as a cathartic space to weep, to emote, to vomit, and to let go.
There are many who believe that one can be a spectator and watch others ‘reflect’, and then one can collect treasures of insights, of lessons learnt, of new ideas – unfortunately it doesn’t work this way either. The consumer mindset is quite dominant in most spaces including Sumedhas spaces, where the lens of working is to tell oneself that learning lies out there, and if one pays money (fees), the learning can be bought over.
The other defense that I hear people talking about when unwilling to engage with reflexivity is that of being ‘introverted’. I don’t think introversion or extroversion (or any of these lens acquired with judgments, values, and biases) can be an excuse of not wanting to work with reflexivity.
Reflexivity and the magic that I seem to be promising in this note, requires a greater effort of every individual within the group – to work with the notion of truth, to be authentic, to keep the witness inside alive even though the actor roles become seductive, and to engage and offer, to receive and to create new meanings.
Yes, just like my first lab, reflexivity can also create confusion, dissonance, alienation, rage, fragmentation et al – well these only get exposed as one takes a deep dive. These gifts are immensely valuable in their own right – for these also provide the energy to re-look at the lens. So yes, a lab space would evoke painful memories, would raise ugly reflections as a mirror, would create turmoil and immense sorrow, and yes if reflexivity happens – would create immense magic that offers new meanings, new choices, and new actions.
Process work spaces are voluntary in their spirit and all of us who join groups uphold this value. The act of joining a GRC or a Sumedhas Summer Program is an act of autonomy, of authorizing oneself, and an act of ‘reflexivity’ where a person chooses to challenge the Thomas Law – by joining in a space where new lens of living and loving can be created.
Those of you who like this blog – please visit www.sumedhas.org and check out the Sumedhas Summer Program 2016.
Gagandeep Singh, is a Fellow of Sumedhas Academy for the Human Context.