Out of the Abaissement: An Experience of Group Process on War and Religion

Freelance journalist and analytic training candidate Luisetta Mudie offers a poetic, deeply personal challenge to adapt our techniques for doing intrapsychic work with Otherness - with the shadows and ghosts that haunt each of us - to a new engagement with the spooks that generate fear and violence in our communities. 

Out of the Abaissement: An experience of group process on war and religion

by Luisetta Mudie

"In an age when all the grand ideas have lost credibility, fear of a phantom enemy is all the politicians have left to maintain their power." 

The Guardian, "The Making of the Terror Myth", Special Report on Terror, Oct. 15, 2004.


Dream, May 2002

I am in a plane with husband and daughter, and there is an emergency landing because of some kind of terror scare. We land, bumpily, near Hitchin, Hertfordshire, (where we have a house), and run like crazy from the plane in case it explodes. Then we walk through some housing estates towards the town, along a footpath. Just in front of us is the opening of a tunnel under the town, which leads to a big mosque on the other side of town (there isn't actually a mosque like this in Hitchin. This one is very grand and shiny, with four minarets). At the mouth of the tunnel there are notices pasted, and I can see the words being written in blue as I watch: la illahi illa allah (there is no god but Allah), and bismillah irrahman irrahim (In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate). A lot of people are walking through the tunnel in the direction of the mosque, but I take the rough stone steps up to the left to find my husband and daughter, who are waiting for me in the community centre.

"Step aboard, ladies and gentlemen! The lift is your friend," intones the bouncer-like London Underground employee, whose cheery forbearance is at odds with a gnomelike life spent, I imagine, far from the light of day. As I wait for the lift in the depths of the Russell Square Tube station, I slip back in imagination to July 7, 2005, when dozens of dazed and bloodied commuters must have been shepherded back through the tunnels to Kings Cross, by perhaps this same man, after suicide bomber Germaine Lindsey had blown himself up and killed 26 of his fellow passengers. The spirits of those who died speak to me as I walk through their scattered energy. They want a poem, they say, and they have an insight to impart in return. Just as I ask them for the insight, the lift doors open with a loud beeping, drowning out their fading whispers about love coupled with awareness (was that it?), and I am ejected onto the morning streets.

I make a mental note of these unquiet shades as I head off at a fair pace for the University of London Union, to attend the second day of the Conference of the International Association of Process-Oriented Psychology, otherwise known as process work. I have a feeling they would be back later in the day. This day of the conference, the only one I could attend, is dedicated to the body of work begun 25 years ago by Arnold Mindell, still known by many in Jungian circles as the author of Dreambody, specifically to the strands of his enquiry that led him into group work, social action and political transformation. I have had a longstanding interest in group work and organisational conflict and change, and have been prompted by a series of dreams about Islam and the conflict in the Middle East to explore further the possibility of working psychologically in such a troubled field.

I sign up for a session entitled "War and Religion: Killing in the Name of God". My dreams point to it, and the shades in the Underground would know a thing or two about it, too. It is run by Gary Reiss, an experienced process worker with a background in gestalt therapy and social work. Reiss gives a few introductory comments, and asks for feedback from the floor. I ask if he is aware that many people died in the vicinity of Russell Square, both in the Tube station and in Tavistock Square on 7/7. "No", he says, "but thank you for telling me, because those spirits will probably emerge in the group today." After a centering exercise in which we link worst and best visions of religion with a unifying image, Reiss calls for co-facilitators. I volunteer. He welcomes me, and one other person.

Group process on War and Religion
Reiss kicks off by taking the role of a religious person who knows they are right because they have a holy book to back them up. They aren't interested in anyone else's experience, but they are looking for converts. A woman is immediately upset and tearful at this attitude and steps up to say how much this view hurts her. Reiss has been joined by several people on the 'holy book' team, including a high proportion of men, and they say they don't care, because what she needs is to see the light like they have. They say they are prepared to kill.

A Japanese woman says tearfully that she has just returned from Hiroshima, and there she realised that it was this attitude which caused the obliteration of so many people in that city. She is angry that her people were used as subjects in a great weapons test, and that their reality was destroyed by the attitudes of those who bombed them. A man agrees, saying it's racism. An older British woman strikes a frozen pose, saying that she feels utterly frozen by the exchange, then strongly advances the view that the blasts were needed to stop Japanese aggression. I help her amplify this view. She mentions the POW camps. Another woman steps in saying the discussion should just stop, and makes a double-handed, sweeping gesture, which Reiss elaborates as exterminatory; a gesture for 'genocide'. The woman agrees, and amplifies, taking the 'murderer' role further.

A Jewish woman speaks with deep emotion about a terrified childhood, and how her experience of this was exactly matched by the childhood experience of a German woman she used to hate. I start to feel like a frightened child, and tell about the first day (when I was 10 years old) that my mother first told me what nuclear weapons were, and how I'd been terrified by this poisonous twisting of nature's energy and had nightmares for years. I stick my finger to my mouth, encouraged by Reiss, and say I can't deal with it; I want Mummy to sort it out.

He calls for a mother figure to recognise that we are all her children, and a man speaks up from the floor to say that the Earth is what is always being fought over, and that he wants to speak for it. A blonde German woman with flowing hair joins him, Gaia-like, with an all-embracing gesture, saying that we are united by the dead in the Earth, which brings a wave of relief to me, and confirming feedback in sounds and facial expressions in many other people that I can see. The woman who enacted the 'murderer' is by the door and confesses to having had suicidal thoughts before coming to the conference. Reiss praises her courage and gift to the group in putting us in touch with death. (A clinical social worker and therapist of many years' experience, he seeks her out after the group has closed). I ask if she wants to leave, as she is standing by the door. She says she can't, because the doors won't open, and I feel relieved. I also see that the doors aren't locked, and that she could leave if she wanted to. We close the proceedings with a handholding circle. The whole process seemed to take 10 minutes, and afterwards I realise we have been going for an hour and a half.

I have arrived at this conference via a circuitous route which included a difficult marriage to a British Muslim, an investigation of the possibility of a formal training in process work and a personal experience of the Israel-Palestine conflict through the eyes of my then husband's Arab heritage. We experienced the appalling impact of 9-11, knowing how very much more difficult tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims were going to become.

The dream reported above came just a few months after September 11, on our return to England. It is hard to unravel, even with five years' worth of hindsight. A moving finger writes, as the poet says. My association is to time, how that which is written down by the turning years as history cannot be unwritten. The journey through the tunnel is to be made in the Name of Allah, the Merciful and Compassionate. His Names are the Names of Majesty, the explosive, terrifying names, but also the Names of Beauty, of manifest nature as a revelation of His splendour. Ascribing partners to Him is the worst of all heresies, which basically means you are not a Muslim at all (which I am not). The primary doctrine of Islam is tawhid, the Oneness of God. But some mystics have described a whole intermediate world of images, the alam al-mithal, or mundus imaginalis which Henri Corbin has picked up in his work on the imagination via Ibn Sina (Avicenna). This is the plane of visionary, mystical and near-death experiences, before you get to the angels. On this level "bodies are spiritualised and spirits corporealised ." This sounds like what we were doing in that session on war and religion. The dream continues to challenge and mystify me, and is a driving force behind my attendance at this conference.

Psyche in community

The ghost of what is not said haunts all discourse. Psychologically speaking, our legacy of discourse; of language used collectively to create our world, is attended by spectres of every kind. Language is by its nature discriminatory. If you say one thing, you have at least temporarily excluded the possibility of meaning something else. It voices parts of things. Jung knew that the unvoiced parts—the spooks—are both collective and individual, and that they have the power to possess us and lead to collective acts of violence. Arnold Mindell's work tries to give voice to those spectres in a way that raises the overall awareness of a group or community when the discourse is actually taking place. This work is both intensely messy, full of the prima materia, and highly spiritual. It requires an ability to observe oneself and others in roles which are highly charged and valuable, but also to be mindful that people are not roles. The aim is facilitate things so that everyone improves their ability to step lightly across the abyss between observer and actor, subject and object, to go with the flow, but not to be swept away by it. It blurs the strong line that Jung drew between individual and collective.

What becomes clear if one adopts such an approach is that Jung was right; our only salvation lies in a loving (erotic) recognition that we are not just this, but That also. The main reason for Jung's rejection of group work was just this descent; the abaissement which opened the group up to possession by collective unconscious material. (Is the journey through the dream tunnel to the mosque an image of such an abaissement?)

So, any collective act of meaning-making must take place to some extent in a spirit world reminiscent of channellings, mediums and table-tapping, if it is to avoid possession by any single spirit. It must have dealings with the mundus imaginalis, and to know with whom or what it deals. This was a world that attracted Jung to pursue depth psychology in the first place, through his thesis research on the activities of his medium cousin Helene Preiswerk.

But possession isn't the only outcome of working in this spirit world, where the emotion of a Holocaust escapee can take hold of the whole room in an instant. Some shamanic practices consist of an invitation to the spirit to enter the body of the shaman, but with the practitioner maintaining awareness, becoming 'as the hollow reed', stepping aside to allow the phenomenon to manifest itself, but not vacating the premises, and coming back afterwards. Such practices could result—and still might!—in a dance, a new song or poem, or a piece of healing work that might not have have been available in a normal state of consciousness. They might take the form of an animal helper that was willing to help the group or individual concerned.

If, as the book says, we've had a hundred years of psychotherapy and the world's getting worse, perhaps it's time to put some of our skills to use in a broader field. What do people with an experience of the psyche at depth have to offer? The ability to enter into erotic connection with psychic realities, to respect and dialogue with them as equals, and the experience of our own shadows. These skills are underemployed in group and community settings, especially those where conflict and difference may lead to violence. There may also be a vision there among some of us; among others a genuine interest in the practical problems of our age. An awareness of the need to dream forward the archetypal roles of elder and initiator in a way that is in keeping with the spirit of our times.

I am at this conference because of wounds, lacks and failures: the inability of a marriage to approach a spiritual form which might have given shape and meaning to its travails; the inability of a society to integrate Muslim and non-Muslim; the inability of good-hearted folk to prevent the war in Iraq. These failures make me vulnerable, but without vulnerability there is no entry point for these haunting entities, which will otherwise explode into our lives as fate.

A new form?

British society has often been praised for its multiculturalism and restraint. But a recent examination of our own beliefs about ourselves following the bombings of July 2005 has revealed a culture of extreme separateness in some of the cities those bombers grew up in. We tolerate, in this country, but that doesn't mean we relate. How can we relate to an attitude that thinks it has the answer because there's a holy book to back it up? And will recognising our own despotic and literalistic tendencies and then keeping quiet about them make a difference? Or, rather, will it make a good-enough difference? Does more, in fact, need to be uttered in community?

The theatre as sacred art gives place and form to publicly witnessed words, each with their specifically judged feeling tone that is borrowed from, that pertains to, the gods. In it, the spooks talk to each other, while we observe, protected. What if we were to manage to hold both observer and participating roles as we enacted together the stories of our age. What if the theatre were to take up once more its role as mediator between the gods and society, as a pressure valve, but with the conscious participation of the audience? It isn't enough that the many-voiced Others are heard; when groups and communities are in conflict, they need to know that they (as Other) are heard. They need relatedness, and often this means a place for an experience of hurt, anger, guilt, and reconciliation; experiences which are all too frequently defended against in groups.

Admittedly, to try to work with these spirits without a legitimate form which points back to the past, and without and conscious consent and intent from the participants which points forward to the future, is to risk a regressive move of the Lord of the Flies variety. This is what Jung believed happened with the Nazis, and we can see why he feared the collective. But we are not without legacy. We have a hundred years of being psychological behind us. We can legitimately accept psychic realities, our ghosts and shadows, as distinct and Other modes of being, and we have had some practice at forming relationships with them on our own behalves as individuals. Jung's work legitimised this modern form of shamanism, but it left out the shaman's specific and direct responsibility to her community. Perhaps it is time to engage the spooks in community, starting at a local level, at the in-between worlds of discourse where so much is decided and where so much goes wrong. If we don't, they may continue to blow our embodied lives and our shared cities all-too-literally to pieces, in a macabre denial of our focus on the individual.

Luisetta Mudie is a freelance journalist, translator, and an Advanced Candidate on IGAP's Programme of Preparation For Becoming an Analyst.

To the dead of Russell Square

May I return and ask you once again
To whisper what was lost in that black hole?
Your scattered energies from bus and train
May still hold fragments leading to the whole.
Did you say of life that it appears,
Flickering into being at the edge
Of darkness, our unknown, defended fears,
However much we hum, and haw and hedge?
This clanking, shifting city knows your names;
It holds you to its war-pocked, suited breast.
Your soul-boats float on gently down the Thames;
Its tidal waters take you to your rest.
The muddy river churns, and we can't see
How we're to be in time, or, seeing, be.