Spirituality, Group Dynamics, and Human Connection

I've noticed an interesting dynamic in my years working in an inpatient psychiatric treatment setting. One of my favorite aspects of my work is leading "spirituality groups" on the units where I serve. These groups are not focused on teaching religious doctrine. They're not really focused on teaching anything. Rather, they exist as an opportunity for individuals from diverse backgrounds to express and hear from others about the practices and deep truths that help them to pursue a sense of meaning and purpose. For many, religion and spirituality are a part of this. For many others, however, religion does not hold any significance. 

The patients I serve come from many cultural and ethnic backgrounds and espouse often radically different political beliefs. As an example, it would not be unusual for me to facilitate a group attended by evangelical, Buddhist, humanist, and Muslim individuals from a variety of ethnic, cultural, and political backgrounds. One common denominator in all of these groups is that each individual has some history with mental illness or substance abuse. That means that, to varying degrees, each of them has experienced the particular suffering that often accompanies these experiences. It also means that each of them has to some extent experienced either internalized or external stigma due to their illness.

The thing that continues to amaze me as I facilitate discussions around meaning, purpose, belief, and spiritual practice in this setting is how frequently and easily the participants in these  groups can identify points of connection and demonstrate respect for difference with compassion, generosity of spirit, and calm. Juxtapose this with the current backdrop of American culture in which ideologies of all sorts are weaponized in a seemingly endless war over who gets to hold power, have a voice, and influence the wider culture. 

The common narrative of antagonistic groups ensconced in ideological fortresses seems to dissolve once people are removed from their comfortable ideological groups and are sitting face-to-face with another human being. I have watched an ardent Trump supporting evangelical comfort a hurting trans individual as they shared about being ostracized by friends and family after coming out. I have witnessed a self-described "anti-religion humanist" offering empathy, compassion, and care to a conservative Roman Catholic as they spoke, tears streaming down their face, about the difficulty of maintaining their faith in the midst of a battle with drug addiction. 

I have many other examples of such experiences. Of course, there have been some less than beautiful moments in which individuals behave in ways that do not show compassion, respect, or grace. However, these are few and far between. I have facilitated a minimum of three such groups weekly for the last three and a half years. That's a lot of positivity, compassion, and connection juxtaposed with the realities of violence and division. 

The only way that I can make sense of my experience in light of the overwhelming evidence of division and vitriol is by positing that when people think of others as members of this or that group, they are highly likely to dehumanize and objectify them. I should also say that at the outset of these groups, I lay some ground rules, the first of which is an acknowledgement that everyone in the group has experienced suffering. The second is that every person in the group is deserving of compassion and respect. What I have observed is that, when these conditions are accepted by everyone in the group, it is nearly impossible to sit face-to-face (masked or not) with another human being and objectify or dehumanize them. When people are given an opportunity to see themselves and others as a part of a diverse group focused on the reality of suffering and the need for compassion they tend (at least in this particular setting) to seek out connection rather than division. 

I am aware of some of the research out there on the relationship of ideology and group dynamics but my experience with these group sessions sparks my curiosity and is prompting me to want to do further study on these dynamics. I don't know whether it will take the form of published research but I do hope to continue to write about these dynamics as I continue to work in this setting. If you've had similar experiences of individuals connecting and showing compassion across cultural and ideological divides, I'd love to hear from you.


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