P.O.P. Groups in India….Deep Democracy, Social Change and the Spirit

By John Mulligan

I attended the Worldwork Seminar in Lonavala in India earlier this month enti­tled “Deep democracy, Social change and the Spirit”. For me as a fairly experi­enced group worker and trainer it was a notable experience both because it was such a large group, over 300 drawn from over 30 countries, and because it showed a way of bridging the psychotherapeutic and the political, the social and the spiritual – values dear to my heart. The process oriented methods are quite unusual and would be an interesting addition to the group work issue.

My intention is to write something which is a cross between a conference report and an illustrated account of some of the key points of Process Oriented Psychology as it applies to what they term “Worldwork”. I would hope to give a descriptive account, which would both give a feel for the conference and illustrate some of the key concepts and aspirations, interspersed with personal reflections on the experience.

Worldwork is defined as “A method that helps small and large groups of people to live, work and grow together within their environment.” It was born out of a dream by Amy Mindell and draws on many disciplines for its theoretical background includ­ing physics, Taoism, Jungian psychology, Gestalt, Psychodrama, spirituality and many more. It seeks to establish a new profession underpinned by “deep democracy” and in my view it is a significant attempt, based on what I witnessed in India and also here in Ireland. Its focus is on issues which are of major concern to the world or Community and the seminar in India reflected this.

There were some initial introductions by country and different identities in which people stood in the large group in response to these identities being called. There were over 300 participants from over 30 countries with all continents being repre­sented. The eleven day conference had a daily structure which consisted of two ses­sions of groupwork involving the whole group, one morning and one evening. Small facilitated home-groups of about ten people met daily and there were also the­ory sessions daily for an hour in addition to opportunities for individual therapy ses­sions and other ad hoc meetings organised around specific issues. Each day had a guiding theme though this did not necessarily determine the issues upon which the group focused.

The group process and the structure of the conference were introduced following introductions. The following were some of the messages conveyed. People were reminded that they could absent themselves physically or emotionally and meet their needs at any time as appropriate. A “tender loving care” group had been set up for those who might need some additional support during the conference.We would be asked to focus on what we had come for. What issues were “hot” would be iden­tified through sorting among the issues raised. Some issue was likely to be selected through consensual methods and those with other issues asked to temporarily defer their issues so we could focus on the chosen one. We would be asked to take roles in relation to these issues and to change roles. There might be a need to do some support work on issues outside the large group process either in small groups or individually. It was acknowledged that people might be participating and feeling a lot even if they were not speaking. There was likely to be as many different kinds of group processes as cultures and these could not be predicted in advance. The iden­tified facilitators for each day may get stirred up by issues being worked on and it was hoped that they would let go of the role and that it would be taken up by any other group members who wished to occupy it. We might not be able to work with all issues if there were too many and might have to defer or forgo working on some issues. We would try to seek consensus to work on issues not necessarily seeking agreement on them. We would try to work to some temporary resolution or stop­ping point with issues. We hoped that the Elders would appear and make their pres­ence felt – those who could care for all sides.

While it was not expected that participants would have an in-depth knowledge of Process work if any, in order to participate (half the group were new to it), I will give an overview of some of the key elements of the theory initially and as I proceed to give some kind of framework for understanding the events referred to in the con­ference. It is impossible to convey the richness of the conference in the space avail­able but I hope to convey a sense of the potential of this way of working. Those interested may wish to follow up the article by reading Mindell’s key books on work referred to in the bibliography.

Field theory:

Critical to the Process approach is the notion of energy fields. The dynamic of both personality and the group or community is understood in process terms rather than structural terms. Drawing on the ideas of modern physics, archetypal psychology and ancient Taoism, their view is that at best, structure, as it appears at any given moment of observation, is temporary and we are better served by being able to be aware of the flow of energy and notice the different paths and forms into which this energy flows. Our identities are seen to be formed by these energy flows. The ener­gy flows are more important than the temporary structures and forms which the flow may take and which tend to arrest our attention. We often assume that the field is synonymous with our consciousness and intended actions.

The process view is that the fields are boundary-less, continue outside our conscious awareness and can also be experienced in the form of dreams, unintended actions and experiences, and events or happenings in the world if we are prepared to notice and be open to them. To help us recognise and work with process or flow, Process Oriented Psychology uses words like roles, time-spirits, ghost-roles, edges and so on.

Roles are the term ascribed to these emergent flows of energy or timespirits while edges are the boundaries of such identities as experienced.

Hot-spot is the term used to refer to the sudden emergence of energy, tension or con­flict during the group encounter. These forms of process language enable partici­pants to converse about these energy flows but language and styles of communica­tion used can, and perhaps need to be, as diverse as the cultures or identities with­in the field. Such diversity is honoured and encouraged whether in the form of movement, sound or visual imaging. Additionally the field is often larger than we can experience, perceive or understand at any given moment, so we need to have ways of relating to the parts of the field which may not be apparent at the time and whose presence may only be inferred from the warp and flow of what is apparent. These are often termed “ghost” roles in Process terms.

Fields have no boundaries. So, viewed in this way, separateness of the personal and the social, inner and outer have little meaning. The personal and the political are all part of the same field. We are all interconnected, as much ancient wisdom and New-Age philosophies remind us. Fields are dream-like and their forces can be felt. They exert their influence, often in hidden ways, much as an electromagnetic field. Fields evolve and change all the time. Like the weather, they are sometimes calm and sunny and at others electric and stormy.

Some of the most interesting patterns and dynamics occur when the warm fronts meet the cold front so to speak; we encounter edges in the process world view – the point or area in the field where two fields or identities meet. It is here that we often experience turbulence and incongruity, double messages, dual identities and conflict – the possibility of expansion and the threat to our existing identity – which, in Mindell’s view, is an indication of the field trying to rebalance itself as fields are wont to do.

Sentience and awareness are therefore central to being, interacting and growing in such fields and it is not primarily dependent on the awareness of the facilitator either, as in so many earlier approaches to group work. The Process view is that awareness itself is the facilitator and the sentience of all present in the field is need­ed to generate awareness.

Working with fields

There is an attempt at various times to give form to this energy by representing it and amplifying it as roles, ghost-roles or time spirits as appropriate. More often, the energy flow in the individual, group, community or in the world, appears in the form of attraction, repulsion, disturbance, turbulence, harmony, incongruence, conflict, emotion, stereotyping, subgrouping, violence among others. The process view is that if all voices or elements in the field can be heard and honoured that this will lead to learning and development, healthier individuals and communities and a significant reduction in the potentially destructive outcomes of conflict.

This as you can imagine is not easy given our propensity to avoid conflict which they view as indicative of developmental opportunity. A major shift in our conventional attitude to conflict is required. Process work offers us a set of mindsets, tools and strategies to make this possible and to engage in conflict in a more creative and productive way. It is a theory and practice continually undergoing action-research and development and, while Amy would seem to be the key theoretician, it is in principle open to others to do so as well. It appears to me that many are engaged in the action part though much fewer than I would like engage in theory develop­ment. The implications for facilitation are significant in that there is neither an attempt to ensure standards of perfection in facilitation or an attempt to ensure the facilitator stays neutral as do many approaches in my view. This is something which is a great relief to me as a facilitator and allows for greater authenticity. This is not to say that excellence in facilitation is not sought or that there is no place for neu­trality – far from it. It is expected and encouraged that the facilitator will enhance their awareness capacity and develop deep-democracy within themselves and the ability to support it within others. This is no small challenge. However, awareness and deep democracy can be supported or facilitated from other positions in addi­tion to a neutral one.

Typically Worldwork encourages you to be in touch with and aware of your stance or position in the field, whether it be for, against, or neutral, and to authentically rep­resent that position as long as you feel congruent with it. Awareness can come from any position. The only recommendation is that the facilitator steps out of the formal facilitator role, for reasons related to the potential power dynamics created by the formal or appointed role, which may then be occupied by those who feel more con­gruent with that position or role. Also encouraged is the capacity for “eldership” i.e. the capacity to support all aspects of the conflict or community. Elders are often perceived as trouble makers because of their willingness to support all sides.

Some personal experiences of the conference:

As I observed and participated in the various events it became chillingly obvious that many of the great problems we face in the world today are immensely complex despite the somewhat disarmingly simple or blanket terms we use to refer to them. Racism, sectarianism, sexism, terrorism, imperialism, environmental degradation, like many of the issues which appear to generate conflict today within and between nations and states, are so multidimensional and complex that I am beginning to doubt the value of some of these labels in working with and sometimes, even talk­ing about these issues and the conflicts arising.

Dealing with racism, for example, raises issues about sexuality, economic discrimi­nation or discrimination on the basis of skin colour, status, social and political marginalisation, to name but a few. I believe that focusing on one identified issue, given the multi-dimensional nature of what is often referred to as racism, can be divisive. There is a danger that other co-sufferers of the related types of oppression men­tioned here may be excluded or alienated by concentration on this label thus depriv­ing each other of much needed support and allies. I personally found attending to such phenomena, through the lenses of discrimination, rank and privilege, more-potent.

Rank and privilege:

Rank and privilege are somewhat akin to social rank and power though Mindell believes that there are many different kinds of rank and privilege. Social, spiritual, psychological, moral rank or powers, are among the more common forms which arise. Education, class, economic status, locality, gender, sexual orientation, race, age and so on, are some of the many forms of privilege which we may have been gifted or achieved depending on the culture or field within which we live or come from. The conference helped to highlight in graphic experiential terms what marginalisation was like from several different perspectives and on a scale which has left a last­ing impact on me. Witnessing the pain and struggle of so many marginalised and oppressed groups and listening to their stories whether Aborigine, gay and lesbian, Kurdish exiles. Black Americans, lower caste, people who had been locked in men­tal institutions, and so on, made me intensely conscious of my privilege and rank as a white, middle class, well-off heterosexual, western male.

At times, within the context of the conference, I began to wish I could have a sex change and a total skin graft – it seemed as if I was about the most unpopular species, role or identity in the conference. I began to feel intensely what it was like to be an undesired and disliked minority (the privileged white male), even if for a short time. It also helped me to become more conscious of the ways in which I occupied mar­ginalised positions during my life and how my identity has often been synonymous with these positions (often as disturber) rather than the perceived privileged white male position which is also clearly true.

Mindell (1995) suggests that many people with rank and privilege are not conscious of it, often because it has been bestowed on them by virtue of the culture and class into which they were born. Those with less privilege are more likely to be aware of others’ privilege but may be unconscious of their own. It also reinforced for me how being in touch with our own experiences of marginalisation, we can more easily empathise with others who may be experiencing marginalisation for whatever rea­son. It also emphasised for me that mere tolerance is not enough as a stance towards marginalised Individuals, communities, etc. A more active engagement is needed both because of the plight of those occupying marginalised or oppressed positions but also because they hold both a threat and the potential future of the whole. The threat was illustrated by stories of the race riots from the Black Americans present showing how such marginalisation could result in the eruption of violence and mayhem – the marginalised group inevitably taking up the role of group disturbers or terrorists as Mindell has written about so eloquently.

A piece of the action:

A significant struggle for people who possess rank and privilege is how to become aware of it, acknowledge it and use it in an empowering and unoppressive way. It was noticeable in the conference how those with privilege were prone to misuse it – often unawarely. The formally appointed facilitators were often attacked for mis­using their positional rank over the course of the conference. Like other issues it was far from simple to understand or resolve.

A case in point from the conference occurred when in the course of a piece of one to one work in the centre of the group, a white male began to do some work, fol­lowing agreement with the group and facilitators, on an issue where he had been attacked in another country for racism. He had been chosen from among several by the Tao – spinning the pen/pointer – and began by telling a couple of dreams which entailed him throwing a powerful man out of the window of a castle in one dream, and his being attacked by a group in the other. The dreams were to be remarkably synchronous with what was to follow.

The work evolved to focus on his poor educational background and then shifted to the point where it seemed to be more about the client’s desire to have his compe­tence recognised by one of the facilitators who was a black American. The American was aware enough to let go the formal facilitator role and engage with the white man on a more equal footing. However he began to lose some patience with the lack of clarity and movement from the client and began to be highly prescriptive as to what the client should do. The client in turn began to assert that he might have something to teach him while acknowledging that he was probably of higher rank within the process community.

The work was confused and the two other facilitators – a white man and woman, seemed somewhat unsure as to what to do and asked for help. Amy intervened as did some others and some were clearly viewing the client’s work as a covert piece of racism in so far as the client had decided to challenge a black man rather than the other two whites over the misuse of facilitator rank. I had raised awareness around the interventions of the facilitators given the group agreement to let those in the middle work uninterrupted. I got little response so I along with others, joined in support of the white man against whom it seemed the facilitators were ganging up, thus making it into a group issue as much as individual client work.

The work continued for a while and the tide of the work seemed to turn against the black American. I changed position at that point from supporting the white client to supporting the American because I felt he was struggling to exercise his facilita­tor rank in an unoppressive way. I identified with what I saw as his struggle and also felt that the white client was concealing aspects of his rank though I could not have articulated this at the time. The time for finishing was long past and there was an attempt to bring the session to a close with some silent meditation.

A number of the black Americans in the room went ballistic, attacking the white client, and later me because I held my ground in what appeared to be an attack on white males for racism. They were deeply unhappy that such racism as they saw it might be glossed over. I had an angry but centred encounter with some of the other Black Americans who were accusing me also of being racist and abusing my white privilege. I pointed out that I was in fact supporting the black facilitator and we eventually seemed to get to a point where we could temporarily finish though the issue was far from finished for most and was to linger on through the following days.

It later became clear that all the black Americans and many others besides felt that the black facilitator had been unsupported by both facilitators and the group from the racism of the client. Many others, myself included, while recognising the possi­ble racist elements were more focused on what they saw as abuse of rank and priv­ilege by the facilitator – primarily in the person of the black facilitator at that point in time. Many of us who were part of the focal group including the black Americans felt very much alone following that encounter and it was clear that many were avoid­ing talking or even having eye contact with us. It took some days before we achieved some level of resolution but even then it was seen as unsatisfactory by many.

The complexity of issues raised by these encounters was reflected in our inability to draw matters even to a temporary close on the night. In what I have written I have only managed to give a partial and most likely distorted account. It does however give a sense of the magnitude and complexity of the issues we were facing and the difficulty of achieving an agreed interpretation of what was happening, given the diversity of positions and culture. The issue later seemed to resolve itself to some extent through two incidents. The first of these was an encounter between a Kurdish woman who challenged another black American facilitator both on his use of power in the facilitator role and the fact that she as part of an oppressed minori­ty would have expected more support from him given their common experiences of oppression. She also felt that as far as she and her people were concerned, she saw the Americans whether black or white as interfering imperialists.

The paradox of expecting support from and wanting to hate the same man in rela­tion to the two different perceived identities – the oppressed and the imperialist – captured the dilemma often faced in such complex conflicts. The acknowledgement by the black facilitator that he may have abused his rank and that he had been unaware of her oppression having identified her as a white woman allowed for a sig­nificant movement and resolution of the conflict. The second resolution of the issue came when a senior member of the facilitation team – again a black American – shift­ed his position and acknowledged, following some considerable pressure from a vociferous Indian participant, that there had been some abuse of facilitator rank. This was a major contribution to the uncoupling of the black American/racism issue and the issues around facilitator rank which had dogged several issues worked on in the large group. There was noticeable relief in the group.


The way we identify ourselves individually or collectively seemed to surface again and again throughout the conference. Through these experiences I became con­scious of how I and many others, both at the conference and outside, often flip from one identity to another. Particularly, when we are tinder attack in the form of our privileged identity or rank we often respond from our marginalised or oppressed identity as a way of defending ourselves. This can be very disorienting and confus­ing to both attacker and ourselves unless accompanied with awareness and acknowledgement. Such flipping from one identity to another is common in esca­lating conflicts.

Identity seems to me to be a way of trying to put boundaries to a field. Given that fields can have no boundaries, this may explain why identities are so troublesome especially when we come to an edge. Fields are no respecters of identity. They form identity and dissolve it, yet we seem to get attached to particular identities and the field forces which impact on us can result in this being a painful experience if our identity is not fluid enough. Becoming identified with static social identities or per­sonality structures would seem to be problematic – identifying with consciousness or awareness itself would seem to be the best option.

Tolerance – a way of authentic meeting?

Some of the more moving experiences for me were watching a prolonged and tense exchange between many in the local Indian community in which fragmentation, disagreement and conflicting desires were interspersed with extraordinary moments of love and compassion. It is difficult to convey the sense of sadness and joy I felt when, in a moment of temporary resolution, two very articulate, powerful and com­passionate Indian women, who had been engaging in a passionate and angry exchange, got in touch with their care and love for one another in full consciousness of the pain they had both been experiencing in the midst of the sometimes chaot­ic encounter of which they were part. It is perhaps also significant or at least syn­chronous that this was happening when the coalition government of India was in the process of falling apart within the wider field within which the conference was taking place.

It seemed to me that the Indian people at the conference had gone over a significant edge in their work within the large group with regard to tolerance. Tolerance is regarded as one of the beliefs and virtues which the majority of Indians aspire to. It is both prized highly within the culture and enables the extraordinarily diverse col­lection of religions and cultures that is modern India to sustain unity. It appeared to me that the members of the group present were quite intolerant much of the time and it was quite painful to witness and seemed to get nowhere.

However, in discussing events during the encounter with some members of the community later on, it appeared as if the tolerance of which people spoke and valued so much could and did often prevent people from really engaging with one another. Tolerance could be seen as a “live and let live but keep your distance” kind of atti­tude. They reported that they had gained a great deal from surfacing some of the real differences which often remained buried under the guise of tolerance. They now felt that because these issues were now out in the open, they could look each other in the eye – have authentic and real engagement even though they had not yet found resolution to the conflicts which emerged during the engagement.

There were poignant moments when some of the Indian community realised for the first time that some members of the Dhalit or lower caste were present – they were shocked and apologetic that they had not even been aware of the presence of these men. This reflected the view of process work that privilege affords those who have it the luxury of being able to ignore the struggles or even the presence of those who are marginalised within groups and communities. The same is true for those sub-personalities or parts of ourselves as Individuals which are marginalised by the dom­inant parts.

Process work supports both the dominant and the marginalised, the oppressor and the oppressed to enter into a more meaningful and creative relationship. This is unlike the approach common in many forms of social activism which tends to sup­port, only or primarily, the underdog. It is also different in that it views inner and outer experience as being closely related and inner-work is as necessary for social transformation as awareness and engagement with the marginalised or minority position in society.


Perhaps the most poignant moments were those when, on the final day of the con­ference, the marginalised voices of the conference in the form of those who had experienced “breakdowns”, been misunderstood and mistreated in mental institu­tions, or tended to experience extreme or altered stales, spoke of their pain and alienation from society and their struggle to have their experience validated and not reinterpreted by the dominant culture – often a western medical one. It seemed as if the storm and fireworks of the other world issues needed to burn out before the quiet and often timorous voices of these disenfranchised could be heard.

This seemed to be the bottom of the pile when it came to priorities even within the conference. Hearing them tell their stories threw wide open the doors of compas­sion and given Process belief in the value of the marginalised and oppressed in rela­tion to the future potential of the collective, I could not help wondering what we might be missing. Perhaps it was significant that the theme for the day included the environment.

As I left India, again confronted with the economic poverty on the streets of Bombay and the Gold Card in my pocket, I remembered Max’s response to my dilemma about how to handle economic privilege in the face of such deprivation. He suggested we were no better off in the west despite our apparent riches. We go around with our metaphorical begging bowl – our hands out looking for a few pence worth of atten­tion. I felt disturbed and nurtured by India, its people and my experiences there. I left having experienced agony and ecstasy, entranced, open hearted, and with as much consciousness of my relative emotional and spiritual poverty as my rank and privilege.  It was both an exciting and humbling experience.

John Mulligan works as an organisational and community development consultant. He is Director of Breakthrough – which offers training and consultancy in Conflict Facilitation, Leadership Development, Organisational and Community change in Ireland and the U.K. He also works with Glencree Centre for Reconciliation in Wicklow. He was formerly Director of The Human Potential Research Group at Surrey University, in the U.K. for several years.


Mindell, A. (1989) The Year 1: Global Process Work with Planetary Myths and structures, New York: Penguin Arkana

Mindell, A. (1992) The Leader as Martial Artist: an Introduction to Deep Democracy, San Francisco: Harper

Mindell, A. (1995) Sitting in the Fire : Large Group Transformation using Conflict and Diversity, Portland: Lao Tse Press.