I've been going on about a close-knit, trusting collective as a context for right relationship. Many people agree in recognising the vital nature of trust in group dynamics, and there are some practices that point towards this. I'll look at two here:
Let me look at both of these separately, considering what they might contribute to a close-knit trusting collective, and to right relationship between pairs of people.
Collective Presencing is a practice that is quite familiar to me now. As participants are encouraged to give voice to whatever is present to them and ready to be put into speech, they can quickly learn, by example, that it is safe to be vulnerably honest about oneself and one's feelings. It starts with the rules of no interruption and no cross-talk: everything is to be spoken ‘to the middle’, not to another individual. With this, together with speaking from one's own experience, it becomes much easier to avoid the temptation to speak in judgement or blame, and much easier to give people the supportive sense of being properly heard – of being witnessed. As a result, people feel safer, vulnerability becomes possible, and so on in a virtuous circle.
My experience is that after several sessions of sharing that space with someone, one comes to know them, not so much on the outside – the objective facts about their lives – but more on the inside: their character; their personality. Once one has seen into people in this way, and they into you, and one has experienced one's vulnerability being respected and witnessed, I have felt a sense of trust quickly developing, as the other participants come to feel like friends that I might have known for a long time, even though in reality I have only been with them on video calls, in a group, for a few hours.
However, the purpose of Collective Presencing is not so much to develop interpersonal friendships, but more to experience and embody the surprising emergence of thoughts, feelings, insights, wisdom even, in the context of the collective.
There are no specific limits on the matters towards which this collective wisdom can and may be turned. If towards a significant enquiry question, then participants may feel enriched in personal insight into life; if towards a practical situation, then new, unexpected possibilities may be sensed and heard; if towards an individual concern, that individual can feel held in a very deep way. The majority of practice I have experienced has been the practice focused around an enquiry question. The other focal points are gradually being tried out, and I see glimpses of the emergent possibilities there.
But one focus I have not yet seen is a focus on personal relationship. I see no reason whatsoever why the collective light should not shine on a personal relationship. If only one half of the relationship is present, it would be much like bringing an individual concern. But if both parties are present, can we imagine the potential that could arise? I don't know what exactly where the limits might be to that, but I am keen to explore, and I see good reasons for going there.
It is in personal relationships that I have experienced the most intractable unwanted behaviour patterns – this is not in the least a surprise, considering the deep and lasting impression that early trauma can have on a person, and that it is in the context of intimate relationships that these patterns are most likely to be restimulated or ‘triggered’. When I say ‘most intractable’, I mean the most likely to resist the more usual and straightforward approaches to personal growth, to processing one's own ‘material’. In my own experience, these patterns can easily resist change even with professional relationship counselling and therapy.
My understanding is that psychoanalysts, and sometimes other psychotherapists, are trained in dealing with projection, or ‘transference’ as it is also called. Even here, my guess is that this can be hard or even unsuccessful. It is much harder for unaided, untrained individuals to work through projections onto their partners in close relationships. Insights from one's partner, and even a therapist, can easily be rejected, on grounds that may even sometimes make a lot of sense.
But it is my experience that if I receive a similar message from several different people, who relate in different ways to me, it is much harder to brush that away, to dismiss the message by imagining that it is merely a product of the other person's faulty perceptions, or by-product of their own defence mechanisms. And this is where I see the potential of a close-knit, trusting group. Defences, conscious or unconscious, can easily be raised against suggestions that are expected, perhaps because of a person's role. But from an unexpected person, one is taken ‘off guard’. Collective wisdom can be brought to bear, consciously or unconsciously, to choose the giver, the receiver, the place, the time, the setting, and the message itself – sometimes direct, sometimes indirect; sometimes blunt, sometimes subtle; sometimes just a nudge.
It takes a genius with saintly healing powers to do this alone. I'm not that kind of genius. Are you?
I have little first-hand experience, though I have read and thought a lot about it, and I have found it of considerable interest for a long time. My perspective on polyamory is that it comes at the issue of right relations from the other end.
There are many varieties of what Jessica Fern 1) terms ‘consensual non-monogamy’. The factor linking them all is the idea of ‘consensual’, that is, all participants consent to all the relationships, which is, naturally, essential to maintaining trust. Within that, there are a various forms that I see as directly relevant to my theme of relating in collectivity.
The first is more of an ideal that a practical reality: having the collective itself as an intimate relationship. For a collective to be sustainable, while having all levels of intimacy spread around the group, there clearly would need to be a great measure of trust and honesty, and the collective would be close-knit in a very strong sense. In polyamory terms, his would probably be called ‘polyfidelity’, if the collective excludes other people joining in.
Whatever one's feelings about, or attitude towards polyamory, it seems to me a worthwhile exercise to imagine what this might feel like, and what would make it work best, if that were possible (in full recognition that many people would not accept that). I see a kind of collective ikigai here, too, when each member is consciously looking after the best interests of others. It may be hard to imagine, but could there, perhaps, be a culture in which people were so genuinely dedicated to the wellbeing of others, that they recognised that their partner would be better off relating to someone else? That would be a culture where everyone was concerned that everyone else was able to have their needs met. If you take out the physical intimacy, that seems to me to be a very striking image of what a close-knit, trusting collective could be.
I have heard second hand from more than one friend of a less sustainable variant of consensal nonmonogamy. That is where, say, two couples start out with openly sharing partners, but end up soon enough having swapped, essentially back in monogamy. That also has an aspect of collective ikigai, sharing the same sense of allowing people to move to where they are most appreciated and fulfilled. The collective trust was at least high enough to allow a reconfiguration of relationship.
I can imagine a blend of these forms. If there was a close-knit group of friends, where all intimate partners were included, if there were enough trust and care, it might be possible for partners to be monogamous at any one time, and at the same time to be supported by the group in their relationships. Ideally they would be given support to work through conflicts, but also in the security that support would also be maintained in cases where conflict proved not to be able to be resolved – in other words, where partners were incompatible – perhaps by reconfiguring partnerships.
Another approach to polyamory, also noted by Jessica Fern, is the idea of different partners satisfying different needs in what could be seen as an ecosystem of personal relationships. We would probably all agree that no one person can meet all of one's needs, but where people differ is what kinds of intimacy that extends to. It is clearly possible to build deep caring relationships which maintain boundaries excluding certain kinds of physical intimacy. My experience, however, is that because ‘stealing’ partners and other infidelity is relatively common in our culture, couples are anxious about allowing any kind of deep intimacy outside the couple relationship, for fear of disruption of the relationship. In that context, it seems more difficult to build the kind of close-knit trust where you can talk about anything: not only actually meeting those psychological intimacy needs, but also talking freely about who else could meet those needs.
I don't have the book with me right now, but I recall Robin Skynner, in “Life And How To Survive It” 2) that the healthiest couples were not closed to intimacy outside the couple, but tended not to have other sexual relationships, simply because it was too complex! To me, what makes sense is for there to be no absolute rules, but for the care and wisdom of the collective to result in people's relationship needs being met, flexibly, fluidly, generously, abundantly; but also wisely.
I use the word ‘needs’ loosely, following the example of NVC, and for brevity. Perhaps one could say, more precisely but at greater length, ‘conditions for thriving’ instead of ‘needs’. That's what I mean. And thriving includes ikigai, of course.