Reflecting on Embodying Collective Transformation

“How are we called to deepen our individual and collective capacity to care for the wellbeing of all life?”

On the 1st of November, a group of strangers from across the globe came together in a tall house in a small town in the south of France to embark on a journey of inquiry into this question. The reason for our congregation was to take part in a month-long “Embodying Collective Transformation” community residency. Perhaps I’m only speaking for myself when I say that as I stepped off the train in Bergerac, I wasn’t sure what to expect of the following month. I knew the title of the residency, I had read the website, I had spoken with the residency hosts and had checked out the recommended preparatory resources, but what did “embodying collective transformation” actually mean? Was I really going to come away “transformed”? Did I even want to?

We have just completed a week of intensive training and are now moving into a period of three weeks of co-living, incorporating the practices we have been learning into our daily lives living in community, and continuing our exploration of our overarching question. Sadly, some of our number planned just to stay for the training. While several decided to extend their stay (yay!), we bid Charlotte and Engen farewell with a continually lengthening farewell ritual earlier this week. Just before they left, I was able to hold a short interview with each of them, offering them space to reflect on their experience. As I approach the midway point of my time here, I have decided to ask myself the same questions I asked Engen and Charlotte. Perhaps with this reflection I will find that my original questions – Will I come away transformed? Do I want to be transformed? – are beginning to be answered. 

How would you describe the Embodying Collective Transformation Community Residency if you were telling a friend about it?

Well, to start, one of the best experiences of life. And definitely the most joyful experience I have had in at least a couple of years. From day one, this small bubble, this carefully held container, has felt so safe, so judgment free, so kind and compassionate that I have felt my heart and soul completely open up – open up to let any and all emotions and parts have the space to be held with compassion and curiosity, but also open up to allow so much joy and love in. 

While I feel this answer accurately describes the ECT residency, I would understand if a friend were still confused as to what it actually is. In short, I would describe this residency as a training week in inner and collective development practices, such as Non-Violent Communication, Internal Family Systems and empathic listening, with the aim that by developing these practices we may develop the ability to approach ourselves, each other, and all situations with curiosity, care and compassion. This week of training is then followed by 3 weeks of co-living in which we develop these learnings through practice in our temporary community. 

What have been some highlights of your experience?

The top highlight for me is the amazing friendships I have already made. We’re just 10 days in, midway for me, and already I feel so much love for everyone in this house. I hope with all my heart that I manage to keep in touch with everyone once we all go our separate ways. Reunions are already in discussion! What has facilitated these connections for me is the sense of safety I feel here and the vulnerability that this has allowed me to embrace. Rather than feeling a “vulnerability hangover” after sharing openly, I instead feel more and more connected to those who hold space for me, and for those whom I hold space. 

A particular highlight for me has been the authentic relating games Johnson has been facilitating. Vulnerability + authenticity + play = a whole lot of joy and laughter!

What insights and/or learning are you taking from this experience? What capacities do you perceive yourself as having developed through this experience?

The main insight I have gained over the past 10 days stems from my learning about Internal Family Systems and Richard Schwartz’ conception of the “Self”. For a brief introduction into IFS I recommend watching and then reading Schwart’s No Bad Part for a deeper exploration. 

Through a practice of looking inward and perceiving the different voices in me that arise in different situations as different “parts” with different purposes and different needs, I am able to extend compassion and curiosity to these parts. I can explore why they arise and what they are protecting. Awareness of these parts and a gentle treatment of them can allow me to speak for parts, not from parts, when I feel a part activated. For example, in a situation where a part of me feels, say, frustrated, I can look inwards and try and understand why. The answer might be that I am not feeling heard, and that my need is to be listened to and for better communication in that moment. This allows me to speak for this need, as opposed to from a place of frustration which may achieve the opposite from my desire for better communication.

My biggest insight from this study of IFS is the concept of the “Self”. Schwarts states that when one is unblended from any parts, one’s “Self” can engage with their own parts, with others, with whatever situation, with the “eight Cs”: creativity, courage, curiosity, a sense of connection, compassion, clarity, calm, and confidence. What amazes me is how much this rings true to me. With some training in empathic listening, I had already, unawares, been able to root myself in the “Self” when listening to others; I could sit and listen with curiosity, compassion, calm etc. But now with a greater understanding of the “Self” I can do this much more consciously and intentionally. I can root myself in the Self not just when holding space for others in a very particular setting, but also in meetings, in challenging conversations, and with myself. When I say I “can”, I really mean I have the knowledge I can do this. In reality, I know that being “unblended” from parts is not always easy. But my interest in all this has definitely been piqued, and I look forward to learning more about IFS and putting my learnings and insights into practice.

What do you think led to this impact?

Looking back on the training week, what strikes me is how carefully considered, how intentional, how well-designed the training and the container for the training felt. I’m not quite sure how the facilitation team managed it, but they created a space that felt so safe to explore these new concepts in. And by exploring these concepts through practicing with one another, the feeling of safety grew and grew as I connected more and more with the other participants. Massive thanks to Jocelyn, Karl, Nadine, and Catherine for the huge amount of time, work and emotional effort they put into this residency.

What has been challenging? What are your reservations? 

Looking back, it has been intense. Intense in a great way, but it’s also been exhausting. The work we have been doing has required us to really look inwards, to examine our different parts, where they arise from and what “exile” they are protecting. I came to this residency, thankfully, at a time when my emotional well being was already pretty strong. I can imagine, had I come here at other times in my life when my mental health was at a low or before I’d already begun working through some stuff that this experience could have perhaps been quite overwhelming; suddenly confronted with parts I didn’t know were there, arising from traumas I had hidden away. However, as I said, the container felt so well held, the environment felt so safe, and the support available was such that I know I would have been fine – it just might have been an even more intense experience. 

Would you recommend this experience to a friend, and if so, why do you think it might be valuable for them?

I would recommend this residency to anyone interested in community who recognises the importance of inner and collective development in caring for our own wellbeing, one another’s wellbeing, and the wellbeing of all life. I have learnt new skills, new practices, I have learnt about myself, I have made new friends, I have met people that maybe one day I might collaborate with on a professional level – I’ve definitely seen some budding collaborations between some participants already – and I’ve just all round had a fantastic time. 

When I think back to my original questions, was I really going to come away transformed and did I even want to, I think I am beginning to get a sense of an answer. I like to think that rather than transforming myself or going through some drastic change, I’m rather developing what was already there. But through this personal development, what I can transform is how I relate to myself, to others and the world around me. I’m truly excited to go back to my everyday life once I leave here with the knowledge that I have the ability to interact with everyone and everything with creativity, courage, curiosity, a sense of connection, compassion, clarity, calm, and confidence. It will take practice, but with the knowledge that I can and have applied my learnings already and with the support network I have gained during this time, I am so excited to see the impact this will have on my life 💛