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Personal growth groups as an alternative cultural form

The personal growth groups which form such a key feature of the human potential movement are frequently perceived in the light of dominant cultural metaphors, as being task- oriented 'therapy' groups concerned with specific remedial goals - with the resolution of psychological problems and the task of 'getting better'. The group experience is regarded as a means to this end, as utilitarian, and this attitude goes hand in hand with such questions as "Does it work?". In this light, cautions are often made about turning such groups into a substitute for real life 'out there' and there is truth in the need to be aware of this risk.

However, from another perspective such groups can also represent an alternative cultural form, and an experience of an alternative way of living - one in which a wider range of aspects of people are accepted and in which living on a deeper basis is enacted and more directly experienced than in many other cultural settings. Lessons from this experience may spill over into other areas of one's life and hopefully will, but it may be misleading to see the group experience as primarily subservient to the rest of one's life. It may be more appropriate way to view it as a part of one's life and development, and often an important part.

Unless a group is of a self-help nature, participation in it usually involves payment of some sort to those leading and organizing it. This fact sometimes gives rise to comments about the purchase of friendship and about practitioners exploiting people financially or otherwise, and these things can be so.

However, numerous cultural forms that are unquestioningly accepted as parts of 'real life' also involve the payment of money, usually without being subject to such aspersions. A night in the pub, a meal out with friends in a restaurant, a visit to the theatre, attending a musical performance, going to a club or going on a holiday, are all 'live' experiences that involve monetary payment yet are readily regarded as part of 'real life' and as enriching in non-material terms, though as in the case of personal growth groups, they may sometimes fail to be so.

Other more vicarious experiences such as watching television, a film or video, listening to a record, reading a novel etc., are also typically thought of as being part of life, and sometimes enriching, despite the fact that they are more 'virtual reality' than reality. They also usually require some sort of monetary expenditure.

Compared with such other life experiences, the personal growth group experience is often more active, more participatory, more spontaneous, less programmed and sometimes more 'real'.

It may be hard to find the like elsewhere in life but nonetheless the group experience can give a taste of how life might be. The degree to which the group experience can 'spill over' into other areas of life, rather than be split-off and unintegrated, may be limited by the receptiveness of the wider culture or of one's particular niche within it. In some cases, where particularly arid social conditions prevail, continuing or periodic attendance at such groups may be as refreshing and necessary as visits to an oasis in a desert.

Categorizing such groups as mainly remedial and concerned with helping those who are 'less than normal' to attain a state of 'normality', regarding the group experience as in some way less significant, less 'real', than other cultural experiences or emphasising the possibilities of dependency and exploitation, may be ways of neutralizing not only the personal impact of such groups but also the challenge they represent to the wider culture - in particular to those aspects of individuals and their social context whose ascendancy depends on the suppression of inner truths and the denial of unconscious and superconscious processes.

The raising of consciousness that can result from the personal growth group experience has implications for social action. The limitations of much ordinary social and cultural life may need to be actively addressed for significant integration to be attainable. Failure to engage in this represents a failure at the level of 'politics' - a failure to embody values and to enact one's awareness.

There is undoubtedly the possibility of pitfalls with groups such as regarding the group experience as a substitute for life, particularly since group experiences may appear so much more meaningful than the rest of their lives for some participants - the gap may feel very great. However, my main focus here has been on the less recognized snares of regarding group experiences as purely a means to an end, devaluing them as life experiences in themselves and failing to follow through on their implications for action in the social and political realm.

I have had some of my most moving, my most meaningful and most spontaneously funny life experiences while participating in or leading personal growth groups.

© Richard Mowbray 1996

[This article first appeared in The Open Centre Programme, Winter/Spring 1997]
 

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