A few days ago I saw an incident involving an 8 year old girl that was so normal, yet so disturbing, it stopped me in my tracks. It led me to reflect about the work I am doing, and specifically about what we call "self-development" workshops.
The scene was 1rst of August celebration with my wife's extended family. One of the adults was gathering the kids to take yet another group photo. I happened to notice one of the girls in the group. Her facial expression was clear - annoyed, angry, it said " leave me alone with your stupid pictures". She said nothing, I'm pretty sure no one else noticed. The camera took aim, and her face transformed instantly into a well rehearsed smile. Then the click of the camera, the smile instantly vanishing and the girl escaping as fast as she could. An experience we all know from our own childhood no doubt, nothing special. So how did this bring me to the topics of workshops?
Self development workshops are a strange format - a group of people who don't know each other get together for a few days, maybe a week, try out things they would otherwise never do in their daily lives, and then disband and go back to their "normal" lives. The experience is usually described as nourishing, heart-opening often challenging and sometimes life-changing.
These groups have played a large part in my own transformation of the last years. Participating, assisting and for the last 2 years leading workshops, I have come to appreciate what makes these spaces so special. In the end, it is about authentic human connection.
Whatever the actual content of the workshop - be it dance, tantra, art, nature, spirituality, man groups, woman groups, "feelings" work - the common denominator is a longing to relate in a way that is real. Where the masks can come off (these days, literally), where we can safely explore what exactly it means to "be myself" - and what it's like to encounter others and allow them to truly see us, without the fake smiles, small talk, and other strategies we use to avoid getting close to each other. It's about the little girl, now grown up, showing her true face to the camera, supported and encouraged by the group.
I am always amazed by how quickly and thoroughly people allow themselves to open in such groups - emotionally, physically, spiritually. It is as if openess is our natural state - like getting home at the end of the day and finally taking off a pair of uncomfortable shoes, we can't wait to drop our masks and do what humans beings are meant to do - connect.
It begs the question - why do we wear these shoes in the first place? After all, if the workshop experience is so great, why not live like this all the time? Why do we need the "permission slip" provided by the workshop space to open our hearts, to touch and be touched, to experiment, to play, to be present and loving with each other?
I often ask myself these questions. After living 4 years in a community, I see it's not so easy, even for a group who shares a clear intention to live together in this way. Many things get in the way, not least our conditioning which tells us we must protect everything that is "I" - our self-image, our world view, our belongings, our interests. Still I see little signs around me that things are changing - that many sense that a deeper connection to oneself and to others is central to being human, that without it we are missing something essential. Many of us are discovering our longing for this connection.
These days, as we are encouraged to be afraid, hide our faces and keep our distance to others, I hope and somehow also trust that this longing will shine through and prevail.