12 June 2009

The Group and the Individual

One of the distinctive teachings of Sangharakshita has been his exploration of the dynamics of groups and individuals in relationship to them. I've always found it helpful to keep in mind. My thinking in this area is also influenced by Colin Wilson's seminal book The Outsider, and by the first spiritual influence in my life: the Richard Bach story Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. I'm also a fan of Jane Goodall's book In the Shadow of Man about her time studying chimpanzees at Gombe Stream which I think provides many insights into our social nature. From these disparate sources and personal experience I have strung together a kind of personal narrative about groups.

We humans are social animals. This is the first thing to understand, and remember. We are social by biology and psychology. We do not have any choice in this matter - as humans we are defined by our relationship to social groups. The average person will participate in a number of groups over their lifetime. Family is the most important in early life, but as soon as we start to socialise outside the family our peers have a massive influence as well. We have school groups - classes, years, school - sports groups, interest groups, political groups, etc. Generally speaking, and genuine loners not withstanding, we operate best in groups - it is natural, and beneficial.

The key quality of a group is that it provides support and stability - of various kinds. As social animals we are psychologically attuned to groups and feel lonely without one. Loneliness can become a pathology. Groups fulfil, or help to fulfil, our biological needs - the lower end of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Groups conserve - they preserve culture, and custom and keep it alive. Again, we don't fair well without these. So groups are necessary and beneficial, but there is a dark side to the group. Groups can become riots or mobs, or can perpetrate larger more heinous corporate acts like slavery and genocide. Groups seem to have the capacity to act in ways that are not simply the sum of their parts, that is not individual behaviour writ large.

Now spiritual growth or progress is, at least as far as Buddhism is concerned, an individual matter. Each individual is responsible for their own conscious acts and the consequences of them. Each one can choose to be moral or immoral, to pursue higher states of consciousness or not. Groups are what Sangharakshita has called the lower evolution - progress is collective, very very slow and limited to the cultural or material sphere. The individual undertakes the higher evolution which is an evolution of consciousness. This focus on the individual consciousness is a relatively new thing in human evolution - dating from only about 2500 years ago. It was the Buddha and his contemporaries in India, Asia, and Europe who began to promote the individual, to examine the individual and to conceive of the individual as the unit of progress rather than the tribe or family or nation. The period when this began to happen is sometimes called the Axial Age - and is broadly speaking the eight centuries centred on the fourth century before the common era.

Now the group generally speaking has two responses to an individual who - for what ever reason - stands apart: assimilation, or anihilation. In the former case the group seeks to coop the member back in, to lull them back to sleep, to coerce them to conform. If this doesn't work, or the group is oriented to the other strategy then the individual is cast out - whether figuratively or literally - or in extreme cases killed. Shunning is a practice common to the Christian and Buddhist traditions for instance! There is a very rare exception to these in the case of the powerful leader. Sometimes someone has such charisma that they single-handedly change the group to their way. But even then things can still turn nasty as many martyrs have discovered.

So any person who sets out on a spiritual journey is likely to experience turbulence in their relationships with groups. This is a given because they are trying to be different. Sometimes old relationships simply break down under the strain. This is something that has to be born by each individual, they don't necessarily set our to break bonds or upset the status quo, but it is almost inevitable at some point. The group values the group per se, over any one individual, and this is why groups persist and are supportive. It is natural for a group to react this way!

A lot of this will be familiar to most people in the FWBO - it's a core Sangharakshita teaching. One of his aphorisms is "the group is always wrong!" However, as is the way with these things the teaching is taken too literally. A manifestation of this is knee-jerk anti-establishment attitudes and behaviour. Sometimes people are simply critical of any group activity or any form of collectivity. This can be seen as a reaction against groups. The person still defines themselves in terms of the group, rather than membership they focus on opposition. Some of this is down to disappointing experiences of organised religions, some to unresolved psychological conflicts, and any number of other reasons. But it ignores our fundamental needs, and is impractical.

One of the first things the Buddha did on becoming enlightened was to set out to tell people what he had discovered. He sought out the most receptive people he knew and they soon saw for themselves the breakthrough. Thus a collective was created that continues to exist in many forms around the globe that we call sangha. As Jamie Lee Curtis's character says in A Fish Called Wanda - "the central philosophy of Buddhism is not 'everyman for himself'". Jump to the future and we find that the sangha needs structures to facilitate communication, it is helpful to have people organising events, and to create venues for practising and teaching. We need these institutions, else we do not create the best conditions for our own practice, and for helping other people to find the Dharma and take up the practice as well.

Like most religious people Buddhists believe that everyone could benefit from doing what we do - I am a fervent believer of this in relation to Buddhist practice, though doubtful about taking on religious beliefs. Although we need to be a true individual, evolving our own consciousness, in practice this is difficult. Supportive conditions, including a positive social network of like minded people, are essential. This means that there is always likely to be a tension between the group and the individual.
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