Reflections on the ZEGG Forum in the US

Teryani
Sarah Taub

[Editor's Note: More than a few groups in the US use the ZEGG Forum. In January one practitioner of the process from the West coast, Teryani, reflected on how this is unfolding in her blog. Another on the East coast, Sarah Taub, responded in a long piece originally sent to a ZEGG Forum list. She revised it for inclusion here in GEO’s Intentional Community/Solidarity Economics theme. Teryani has read it before its publication here.  GEO will consider publishing other reflections from people involved in the practice of the ZEGG Forum.]

The Direction of “ZEGG” Forum in the U.S.
By Teryani

There seems to be a lot of buzz about “ZEGG” Forum in the U.S. these days.  Different teachers of it are popping up everywhere (some even offering certificates!) and even more people are clamoring to get “trained,” etc.   Of course, as the first North American trainer in ZEGG Forum, the buzz is getting back to me, sabbatical or not.  Here are some of my thoughts on it:

In the beginning of 2012 I was asked to give some Forum trainings in Europe and so decided it was time to visit Tamera and re-visit ZEGG.  I wanted to see how Forum was done at Tamera (which I had never been to) and see its evolution at ZEGG (which I hadn’t visited for almost a decade).  I also decided (for spiritual and personal growth reasons) that it was time to revisit NFNC’s Summer Camp West.  I was disturbed by much of the Forum I saw that year–in all three places–but I was most disturbed by what I saw at NFNC’s Summer Camp (and later to a lesser degree, the Maui Forums).

[For those of you who were with me at that Summer Camp, please understand my Forum opinions are completely separate from my other opinions of Summer Camp and would be the same regardless of my experience there.]

Back in the days I when was visiting ZEGG frequently, the Germans often complained that Americans are primarily looking for “emotional homeland.”  Rather than looking to make world peace or serious culture change, Americans were wanting to feel “safe” and “loved” and often engaged in “emotional indulgence” when participating in group processes.  This concept fascinated me–-especially as I watched Naka Ima turn into “Heart of Now” back in the early 2000′s.  As I paid attention over the years, I started noticing it elsewhere and in surprising places.   In fact, the Germans were not alone in this observation–-as I did more and more work with internationals over the years, I heard similar complaints from other international facilitators.  Facilitating Americans (and other native English-speakers) is just downright different than facilitating other cultures–-they want you to create an emotionally “safe” space for them and will often take up more space to get their emotional needs met than other cultures.  (In fact, one can even see something like this in Time magazine where they make their content and cover stories far more “emotional” for Americans while keeping it political and hard-hitting in the rest of the world.)

“It is not a sign of good health to be well adjusted to a sick society.” Krishnamurti

We live in a world that cultivates disassociation, disconnection, and isolation.  We’re also a culture where individuals are suffering from intense loneliness and disconnection from their sense of purpose.  In our Western society, we have many ways of coping with this, but one of the foremost is through addiction.  Many of the more well-known addictions are from physical substances (alcohol, drugs, etc.), others are more obviously behavioral (i.e. gambling and porn), but many psycho-emotional addictions often go unnoticed.  The hormonal highs we get when we engage in activities that elicit strong emotions (i.e. war, abuse, dare-devil stunts, “new relationship energy,” group processing) are also highly addictive, both physically and emotionally.  Emotional processing can fall into this latter category.

It’s well known that emotional processing provides both a temporary sense of connection as well as a physical hormonal “high” (for those of you who do workshops, think “workshop” high).  The more intense the processing, the more intense the high.  And, as science has shown, these hormones are quite addictive.  In emotional processing (group and otherwise), the emotional highs that come from processing also create a temporary sense of intimacy, which we all crave on a deep level.  So much so that many frequent workshop attendees find that they can’t get a sense of connection without the intensity of workshops and/or group processing.  However, one thing that processing does not do is create lasting intimacy on its own.  Think of it like salt–some is necessary to make the fullest flavor come out in food, but too much can be addictive and, at the extreme, makes the food inedible.  It certainly does not take the place of the real food ingredients in the dish.

So back to Forum in North America (and now to a lesser extent in other places in Europe):

Forum was designed as a tool for those living closely together.  It was intended to provide a stage for the exploration of the human condition and a means to individually and communally evolve ourselves into a world without fear and violence.  The creators of Forum didn’t need it to create a sense of intimacy–they were already engaged in deep intimacy with each other (sexually and otherwise).  Nor were they going for the high that comes with emotional processing or looking for a “safe space” to vent their emotions.  Rather, they were looking to evolve themselves and their project and found that Forum was an incredible tool.

Most of the North Americans using the Forum are not living in community (though many of them long for it).  They also do not have the group intimacy and common vision that the designers of the Forum intended Forum participants to already have.  As a result, many Americans have begun using the Forum for an artificial (and temporary) feeling of intimacy normally created through other means.  On top of this, more and more folks are looking for ways to get (and keep) the intense (and addictive) hormonal high that can come from group processing.  At this point it may very well be an almost invisible epidemic in the personal growth/Tantra/etc. workshop communities.  This combined with the American tendency towards emotional indulgence (which, after more than a decade of exploration I believe to be an accurate description) and what I can only define as “workshop leader ego” is a recipe for a total twisting of what ZEGG Forum was intended for.

Of course, if one wishes to create a group experience where these things play out (generally resulting in a modified form of group Gestalt therapy) that’s fine.  Many have found group therapy and witnessing to be very useful.  Less fine, I think, is when charismatic facilitators take advantage of the endemic loneliness of people and the addictiveness of workshop highs.  This has been a trend for a while now in the workshop world, one that deeply disturbs me.

Either way, using ZEGG Forum outside of the context from which it was created is no crime, but let’s be honest: it then becomes something other than “ZEGG” Forum.  I would encourage most of the U.S. folks doing Forum to drop the “ZEGG” from its name (or “Tamera” for that matter) and call it their own thing.  It would be far more accurate.  As for me, I’m seriously rethinking my part in the U.S. Forums and am tending towards teaching it only in venues for which it was intended or at the least for which we’re honest about our modifications (i.e. when we take it into the group therapy realm).


Response to “The Direction of “ZEGG” Forum in the U.S.”
By Sarah Taub, Center for a New Culture

I’d like to address an essay on Teryani Riggs’ blog, where she has made several posts about Forum in the US, and at ZEGG and Tamera.  Teryani was the first North American to teach ZEGG Forum facilitation.  She was my first Forum teacher, and I have a deep respect for her insight and intelligence.  I find her blog posts to be fascinating and well-worth reading, though I don’t always agree with everything she says.

In this particular post Teryani makes a number of points, which I would summarize as follows:

  • Americans obsess about emotional safety and are “emotionally indulgent”, more so than Germans or people from other cultures.
  • Forum was designed as a tool for human and social evolution in communities where activists and explorers live and work together.
  • In the US, Forum is being used in non-residential communities by ego-driven facilitators to create an addictive “workshop high” from group processing, rather than as a tool for community and social evolution.
  • This is a “total twisting” of what Forum was designed for – in such cases, the name “ZEGG” should be dropped from the title.

 
Teryani adds that she is leaning toward only teaching Forum in community venues or in non-community venues that are “honest” about how they have modified Forum.

I’ll start by saying that I agree with many of Teryani’s observations.  However, there is an overall tone of judgment and separation in the post that I feel sad about.  She gives a negative framing (“indulgence”, “twisting”) to some things that I would simply label as differences.  If I were to give NVC-style empathy to Teryani’s post, looking for underlying feelings and needs, I would ask: Are you feeling frustrated because you place a high value on community evolution and social change?

There are indeed cultural differences between US and German attitudes toward emotions and emotional safety, and I agree that the tendency is toward more space for emotions in US culture.  It’s my impression that most Germans are more intellectual and more comfortable working with ideas than Americans, while the majority of the Americans I’ve done Forum and New Culture events with want to get into their hearts and their bodies and out of their heads.  And of course there are other cultures that would be even more in touch with their emotions and physicality than the Americans seem to be.  Each predisposition has its strengths and weaknesses in doing deep personal and community explorations.  I am not an expert on this, and would enjoy an open-ended exploration of people’s experiences with these cultural differences.

Teryani is correct that Forum was originally designed for use in activist social-change communities.  As such, it is a tool to improve the functioning of a community, not for individual personal growth (though of course participation in Forum can be quite growthful).  Achim Ecker and Ina Meyer-Stoll, Forum teachers from ZEGG, have created an excellent handout entitled “Conditions for a Useful Forum,” available here http://www.geo.coop/story/conditions-useful-forum. They state that Forum is most likely to be useful when done in a group that has come together with a shared purpose or vision -- a group that is attempting to do something together, by living together, working together, or by sharing an intensive common experience – though they do not feel it needs to be limited to residential communities.

I have taught introductions to Forum at a number of conferences, workshops, and private homes where the participants do not know each other, and it is a totally different “animal” from groups where people share a flow of experience outside of Forum.  When there is no community setting, the Forum presentations default to being about an individual’s personal growth and the experience is much more that of group therapy than community evolution.  There is not so much of that electric sense of the Forum presenters doing the community’s work.  This is not bad, just different, and less interesting to me.

My main experience with Forum is in short-term groups such as participants in Network for a New Culture weekends or 10-14 day Summer Camps (www.nfnc.org).  Here I find Forum to be an incredibly powerful tool for creating and supporting community.  While Summer Camp groups are not residential communities, the intense connections among the participants that carry on throughout the year reflect the depth and reality of the community that is formed.   In general, the early Forums tend to help people get to know each other beneath the surface, and the later ones start to deal more with interpersonal issues and group vision.  I’m aware that Forums in a long-term residential community take on a different character, and I look forward to experiencing this myself and learning from those who are doing Forum in such communities.  One of the delights of co-teaching a Forum training recently with Kamala Devi was learning from her experience of doing Forum for years with a non-residential but deeply bonded “pod” of 20 to 40 lovers.

I also appreciate the work Debby Sugarman has been doing in adapting Forum to the needs of a non-profit business that she works with.  In her adaptation, she responded to the needs of participants who were not necessarily oriented toward personal growth and had little in the way of community skills, but who still shared a vision of a harmonious and effective workplace.  Her community explorations resulted in something that looked less and less like Forum, while still preserving and supporting the underlying values of compassionate, non-judgmental witnessing of what is under the surface.

Forum in the US has been growing and changing in a variety of directions, and I see this as a good thing.  We are engaged in a grand experiment of creating tools that support compassion, empathy, community, and shared action.  Taking a tool, improving and extending it, and finding new uses for it is part of the human process.  Acknowledging the roots of this tool by calling it ZEGG Forum seems appropriate to me, unless or until people at ZEGG ask us to limit that use.

Regarding the phenomenon of the “workshop high” – I agree with Teryani that such a thing exists, and it can be intensely exciting, and that there are short-term groups, workshops, etc. that focus on this experience to the exclusion of broader social change and even personal change goals.  Yes, it can feel like we are doing really powerful work together – but when we get home, nothing has changed in ourselves or our communities.  I don’t personally see this happening because of a way of doing Forum, though.  A 90-minute experience every week or two, or even every day, seems unlikely to create a “workshop high”.  If the group doesn’t have a shared vision of creating change, Forum isn’t going to make it different – if the group’s goal is to create emotional intensity and process with each other, Forum will support this goal, rather than social evolution.

I wonder if Teryani might be reacting here to the “ghost role” (a cultural archetype that is always with us, mentioned or not) of the unscrupulous guru, the cult leader, the one who tries to suck people in with addictive peak experiences and take control of their lives.  I’m not currently seeing this in Forum.

To sum up, I agree with most of the factual content of Teryani’s post, but not with her judgments.  I’m excited to be part of a learning community of people who are teaching, studying, and experimenting with Forum.  I’d like to see the use of Forum expand into even more types of communities and groups, because I’ve found it to be a powerful tool for teaching key community skills like empathy, feedback, non-attachment, and appreciation of differences.  The more those skills spread, the better off we are.

I welcome other people’s feedback and commentary!

love and light,

Sarah Taub
Center for a New Culture
www.cfnc.us

 

Go to the Intentional Communities and Solidarity Economics theme page

About the author: 

Teryani writes at the Living Awareness Institute Blog



Sarah Taub, Ph.D is a cultural activist whose passion is creating events where people transform. She teaches the skills of peaceful, sustainable community, self-awareness, honesty, clear boundaries, and facilitates group processes of many sorts, including consensus decision-making, business meetings and retreats, ZEGG Forum, and conflict resolution sessions. Sarah co-founded the first cohousing community in Washington, DC, and for the past 12 years has lived at Chrysalis, a small urban intentional community in Arlington, VA whose mission is to support activists and healers (www.chrysalis-va.org). Since 2004, she has been a major organizer of Network for a New Culture's East Coast Summer Camp (www.cfnc.us) and other events aimed at creating a culture based on awareness, compassion, and freedom rather than on fear and judgment. In 2006, she left her tenured professorship in Cognitive Linguistics at Gallaudet University to focus full-time on events, community-building, and cultural change. Since 2011, she has been the financial and programs manager for Abrams Creek Center (www.abramscreekcenter.com), a retreat center and community in the mountains of West Virginia.

Sarah has been facilitating ZEGG Forum at New Culture events since 2004. She participated in and assisted at three Forum trainings with Teryani Riggs and has completed several Forum trainings with Ina Meyer-Stoll and Achim Ecker of ZEGG, including a 16-day facilitation training at Ganas Community in New York. She coordinated or co-coordinated the Forum team at New Culture Summer Camp West from 2008 to 2011, coordinated the Forum team at New Culture Summer Camp Central Oregon in 2011 and 2012, and has been on the Forum team at New Culture Summer Camp East since 2008. She has been teaching Forum facilitation with Debby Sugarman since 2011, and is deeply committed to Forum as a tool of large-group transparency and transformation.

 

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