Becoming Open

This basic process is often described as "freeing up" or "becoming open." Another extremely common awareness notion is "liberation." To what should we be open? And from what (and for what) should we be liberated? It is common to speak of freedom and liberation in social, political, or intellectual terms. But in this context the emphasis is on something else entirely. Each person should try to achieve a (rather vaguely defined) psycho-emotional freedom and liberation. The focus is on releasing the "inner person." Similarly, openness does not mean being receptive to new ideas, outlooks, or social situations. Rather we are to be open to ourselves, to the feel of our immediate surroundings, and to the responses and vibrations of other people with whom we are in direct contact.

Hence what might be truly liberating -- a broadening of perspectives as well as a heightening of sensation -- often turns, in this interiorized version, into a narrowing of the individual's outlook. On the other hand, in some circles a nebulous concept of openness becomes a kind of fetish. We should be open to everything and anything, to everyone and anyone. In other words, totally undiscriminating. In a sense, this is what awareness-makers really want. It follows from their aim of breaking down our perpetual distinction-making and analyzing, from condemning our tendency to rationally assess all our experience (that is, "discriminate" by imposing standards, asserting values, and making choices). Yet even intellectual openness can, if carried too far, be a bad thing. Being totally open to every idea, one becomes a kind of intellectual sieve. In an ill-defined area of emotional response and self-assessment, the same approach can be truly chaotic.

Every emotion has value, according to the new ideology. We must recognize all feelings, express them, open them up to the people around us. We must, in short, "let it all hang out." If we accept this view, there seems little room for us to discriminate among our emotions or control our feelings. Awareness enthusiasts may be right that we have overcontrolled in the past. Yet it is not at all clear that undifferentiated and undiscriminating feeling is always a good thing. The cult of openness threatens those domains of psychological and emotional reserve that people rightly cherish. In his excellent study of the encounter and sensitivity movement sociologist Kurt Back emphasized the threat such programs pose to the need for and right to privacy. As he noted, "The norms of encounter groups frequently treat this right as obnoxious, and the social pressure within these groups is to persuade the person to surrender it."

Back and others have expressed concern about the psychological damage that may result from such enforced openness. The danger to unstable individuals -- particularly when they are at the hands of ill-trained, insensitive, or unscrupulous group leaders or fellow participants -- is obvious. What obsessive openness (in the group context or any other) does for or to persons who are in pretty good psychological shape beforehand we simply do not know. Today the call for openness extends well beyond group therapy and encounter sessions. As psychologist Thomas Cottle recently pointed out, our entire society seems to be leaning toward more and more divulging and exposing, less and less confidentiality and withholding. In later sections of this book, I shall consider some specific manifestations of this tendency -- including the much-publicized idea of "open marriage," and the influential movement for increased openness in our schools. To the extent these developments reflect a trend toward greater honesty and equality, they are without question commendable. But when openness and liberation (or the mechanisms for achieving them) become ends in themselves, obscuring all other worthwhile goals, our society is likely to be in great trouble.

The various approaches to achieving liberation through increased self-awareness all share in the irony of purporting to teach us how to be natural. We are offered techniques for feeling our feelings, skills for developing our spontaneity, systematic methods for achieving simplicity. There are, at a minimum, three somewhat different approaches to awarenessenhancing. One is represented by the "expressivists" (including the new sensualists). A second is that of the "detachers" (they seek to achieve detachment from the world). A third is

developed by the "communicators" (who stress the importance of content-free communications skills). Although there are complicated bodies of theory lying behind these approaches, and claims of definitiveness made by some proponents of each, they are not really mutually exclusive schools. They differ somewhat in emphasis, but not greatly in purpose or overall outlook. As I have mentioned, my own concern here is with common ideas and interconnections. Some advocates of the new awareness themselves recognize that they are all (as Claudio Naranjo stresses) engaged in, "The One Quest." Among the major unifying themes is this business of becoming open. In one way or another, all aim at liberating the person.

What are the different emphases given to this common idea? Encounter groups -- by now much chronicled, at times criticized, and according to some observers already on the wane -- are of course the prototype of the expressivist approach. Writer Jane Howard, reporting (in Please Touch) on her national participant-observation tour of encounter programs and centers, commented favorably on their getting people to risk "more emphasis on warmth, even at the expense of light. Maybe we have plenty of light already." Critics (such as Kurt Back) have stressed the anti-intellectualism of these programs (which Ms. Howard obviously recognized), the artificial nature of the group situation, excessive claims by encounterists, and the considerable danger of misuse or abuse of their techniques. Our main focus here, however, is on the outlooks encounter spokesmen and their proteges have been disseminating. These outlooks keep cropping up all over the place -- often quite far from actual encounter-group settings.

In his book Joy, an already classic statement of the encounter approach, William Schutz emphasizes that there is no established routine to be adopted in every encounter group. "Instead, it uses the feelings and interaction of group members as the focus of attention. The process of achieving personal growth begins with the exploration of feelings within the group and proceeds to wherever the group members take it." As he goes on to state, members are above all urged to be open and honest. Usually a feeling of group solidarity develops that helps facilitate mutual exploration. Schutz describes many specific techniques that may be used in this opening-up process, techniques that will (he claims) enhance "personal functioning." There is a great variety of possible touching and feeling exercises. Some focus on one's own feelings and body, some involve two or more group members exploring together. Some methods aim at developing trust (as when one person falls and allows himself or herself to be caught by a fellow encounterist). Others allow one to express personal hostility or affectionate feelings (actively kicking; actively hugging). Many are strongly body-oriented. Still others are specifically geared to developing competence in interpersonal relations. Some seek to enhance self-understanding through exploration of fantasies and daydreams.

By such means, the encounterists hope to release the individual's full potential. To free the body and the emotions now shackled by socially imposed inhibitions. To allow the person to feel vitality and joy through unrestricted experience and effortless functioning. To cut through the verbalizations and poses, and get to the person's "gut feelings." This last theme is an extremely important one that permeates the entire awareness movement. According to the authors of a major text on gestalt therapy, our ordinary life tends to be dominated by "word disease." We live a substitute life of verbalizing and supposedly objective analysis, rather than experiencing life itself fully and directly. "When one fears contact with actuality -- with flesh-and-blood people and with one's own sensations and feelings -- words are interposed as a screen both between the verbalizer and the environment and between the verbalizer and his own organism. The person attempts to live on words -- and then wonders vaguely why something is amiss!"

This quite explicit anti-intellectualism comes across repeatedly in the current psychological self-help literature. It is an all too easy jump from theorizing about artificial limitations on human potential to providing glib assurances that we can all fulfill ourselves simply by feeling our feelings. Thus one best seller asserts: "Awareness is an endlessly available opportunity offering the possibilities of new discoveries of who one is and who one isn't. This limitless potential to experience the joy and excitement of learning about oneself and one's world can make life a meaningful adventure for anyone." These books tend to stress heavily the nonverbal, nonanalytic expressive paths to awareness. Often they present a variety of physical and interpersonal "exercises" or other encounter-generated techniques and concepts.

From a sociopolitical standpoint, the concept of human potential so much bandied about in discussions of self-awareness is in fact a very strange and narrow one. This is a point I discuss in more detail later in this book. But even putting aside for the moment the question of what's missing in the concept, we may wonder just who can take advantage of whatever real value it does have. My discussion below also makes clear the patent class bias of the awareness movement and the new self-help writings. It is all very well for Jerry Greenwald to refer to awareness as an "endlessly available opportunity," and to depict life as "a meaningful adventure for anyone." Without doubt he sincerely believes this.

Yet it is simply not true that this kind of personal liberation will be of equal value to all. Some people are conspicuously freer than others to appreciate the benefits of becoming open. And nowadays the price of awareness may come high. As one commentator on the new "humanistic" psychology remarks, "the new humanists do not deal with the poor. The cost of one marathon session would wreck the family budget of a workingman and the cost of two would bankrupt him." Since group and encounter techniques are often proclaimed for their cheapness and wide applicability, this is a most paradoxical state of affairs.

No comments: