Monday September 2, 2019

What happens when, as an experiment, we treat moments of our lives as “encounters”? What were people doing when they joined T-groups, encounter groups, and consciousness-raising groups in the 60s and 70s at places like Esalen? How were these groups organized? Did facilitators exercise claims to authority in these groups? Were they like teachers? Workshop leaders? Pastors? Counselors? Therapists? Gurus? A bit of all of the above, I suppose. Groups fulfill needs of an emotional, psychological, and spiritual sort among people who have come free of traditional affiliations: disaffected subjects seeking re-enchantment, players in search of new games. Such people arrive at these groups and games as they wander markets, festivals, circuits, and arcades. The encounter groups of the 60s and 70s were sites where “role-playing” got its start. Games like Dungeons & Dragons emerged in roughly the same moment and milieu. What’s interesting about encounter groups is that participants trust their feelings to “a bunch of strangers,” rather than to uniformed technocrats, “experts,” priests, and elites. The encounter group is also interesting in that it births group consciousness through use of cybernetic feedback mechanisms. Group members are observed by facilitators. The facilitator reports these observations back to the group. The latter then react to the reports and the cycle begins anew, in much the same way “rounds” occur in D&D. Thomas R. Verney describes two favorite techniques of role-play used by Gestalt therapist Fritz Perls during the latter’s time at Esalen in the 60s and 70s: the “two chair” technique and another called “play the projection.” Could techniques of that sort have a place, I wonder, in one of my courses? Verny’s book Inside Groups: A Practical Guide to Encounter Groups & Group Therapy answers many of my questions. The least authoritarian of the leaders he describes are those he calls “T-group trainers.” The T-group trainer, he writes, “is usually described as a facilitator and a catalyst” (28). Leadership of this sort involves paraphrasing what is said by the group, acting as a mirroring instrument so that members can know themselves and the group can self-actualize. Encounter group leaders are a bit more unpredictable, their methods and techniques less subject to professionalization and external supervision. As for the techniques themselves, Verny writes, these are primarily “verbal and nonverbal confrontation, psychodrama, Gestalt, and sensory awareness,” as well as “fantasy, meditation, and transactional analysis” (34-35).