Some people love theory and some people love praxis. I’ve always been a big fan of praxis myself, which is why I’m delighted to continue our series of interviews with Soultribe Practitioners. Theoreticians can tell you why things work. Practitioners tell you how things work.
Christine Valters Painter is one of the rare few who can do both. In this interview Christine talks about several types of Soultribes and how their natural life cycle progressed. Last month’s Soultribe Practitioner, Melissa Lindgrenof the Knitta’s talked about a more light-hearted group designed to share-a-skill and tell a story. This month Christine will give us insight in to forming a more intensive group with deep soul sharing with a different standard of expectation for commitment, attendance and involvement. Both types of group are great – which kind you form just has to do with what scratches where it itches.
And now, without further ado, Ms. Christine Valters Paintner: Spiritual Director, Benedictine Oblate, Photographer, Author, Teacher, Dog Lover, Zine Maker, World Traveler and PhD (among other marvelous things)
Background:Could you tell us what kind of Soultribe you belong to: What do you call it? How big is it? How often do you meet? How long have you been together as a group?
I have belonged to several Creative Communities over the last few years including Writing Group, a Dream Group, and a Peer Creative Arts Group. I like the word “Soultribe” as a descriptor of what it is we really do together, so that may inform our future incarnations.
Each group has had about 5-6 members and has lasted three years. The size is just right for growing in intimacy together and I am discovering the life cycles in group process.
The Writing Group and Dream Group no longer meet because the natural end of those cycles was reached. The Peer Creative Arts Group (or Soultribe) was originally formed out of a program I teach called “Awakening the Creative Spirit” . After the first year through that program I invited four participants with whom I felt like I could move into a peer relationship and explore the arts together as a means for ongoing self-growth and discovery. It became a place to experiment with different art forms in the context of prayer and sacred intention and a place to have our story heard and held.
There were several commitments we made to each other to build the foundation of the group: being present each monthly session, maintaining a covenant of confidentiality, supporting each other in taking care of our needs in the group by keeping a balance of safety and risk-taking.
Group Content: What does your typical time together look like? Who decides what you will do together? Who facilitates?
Our Peer Creative Arts Group gathers for three hours. The first hour is time for checking in, the second hour is for a creative arts experience, and the third hour is to share the fruits of that experience and offer one or two members a focused time to unpack something that may be stirring up a lot of energy. This third part is essentially a group spiritual direction process of listening and reflecting back what we hear in their story.
Each member takes a turn to facilitate each month and hold the space and be mindful of the time. We have had facilitators bring experiences of movement and InterPlay, visual expression though painting, drawing, or collage, poetry and journal writing, song, and sacred drama. The art form serves as a container for our individual process and allows us to witness what is emerging and unfolding within us through varying languages and mediums. It is a place for us to experiment as well with new processes we want to try with a retreat we are leading or some other work, in this group we can ask for feedback as to how it went and what needed improvement.
Our process has evolved a bit over time. We have checked in periodically as a group about the shape, form, and frequency our time takes together. For example, during the first year we found that slowly our check-ins were becoming longer and longer until we had little time left for the art experience. And while the check-in time is such a rich part of bringing our sacred story to the others, there is also a gift we had to embrace in providing limits. We had to trust that ten minutes each would be “enough” to tell what was really essential. So now the facilitator keeps track of the time and gives a signal when those ten minutes are nearly done. From this process I have become a big fan of creating time limits in group process and having someone in charge of holding us to those (which rotates each time). It creates a true mutuality where people who naturally tend to talk longer don’t dominate the time. It offers us an opportunity to be really intentional about what we share with each other, rather than just rattling off a whole list of events since our last gathering. The time limit forces us to go deeper more quickly.
People: What kind of people attend? How did you initially find and gather these folks? How do people find you now that you’ve been around for a while?
Ours is an intentionally small group and is closed to new members. We recently had one member move to Australia and so we had to discern carefully whether we would invite another person in. We knew it had to be someone who knew us quite well in other contexts, because over three years we had grown very close to each other. One of our group members did a beautiful job of creating closure for our group when the member left. We moved through a ritual of reflecting on our time together and telling stories of memories from different points of our group’s history, naming the gifts and challenges, and then had a ritual of letting go. We weren’t just saying goodbye to one person, we had to acknowledge that our group would now be an entirely new creation without her dynamic as apart. We are just in the process of adding the new member in and need to tread carefully and intentionally about creating essentially a new group because those dynamics have shifted.
If it were more of an open group I would send out notes to all of my contacts with an invitation and a specific description of what the group was about and name some of the qualities of the kind of people we were looking for. I find networking bears the most fruit in terms of bringing people together. Individual invitation works well also, perhaps you know of at least one or two people you would love to commit to in a soulful way and they each know of at least one or two people. Have an initial gathering where you discuss the hopes for the group and give each person permission at that point to say whether they feel drawn or not, giving them freedom to discover that it might not be the right process for them.
Coming Together: How long did it take your group to gel? What was that process like? If you got to a sticky point where you weren’t sure it was working out, how did you know to press on? When did you know you had “clicked” together?
We were fortunate in that we had already been through a six-month program together so a great deal of trust had already been established and there was excitement around continuing this dynamic. Essential to this process were creating agreements and expectations around confidentiality and safety. Depending on how often a group meets, I find that it generally takes 5-6 meetings to really move to a deeper place together where you begin sharing those layers of soul beneath the surface.
Our group has had several sticking points and struggles along the way. For example, initially I had invited one other member who hadn’t gone through our program together but knew a couple of the other members and was interested in exploring the arts as a spiritual practice. However she kept cancelling last minute and not showing up to our sessions which began to create a significant tension. I learned that when the group members have different members of connection and familiarity with each other, significant work needs to be done to bridge those as well as clear commitments for presence at each session and to each other if you want to build a deeper level of trust. I eventually had to ask her to not participate which was a painful process and resulted in the distancing of our friendship.
The five of us who participate have very full lives and some months it can be a struggle to get to our time together with so much else vying for our attention. We have had to re-commit to each other along the way and sometimes pause the normal rhythm of our group to reflect on and re-connect with why it is we get together and whether we are still fed by our process and time. The reasons will shift over time and is a natural outflow of group process. The answer for our group has continued to be yes. At some point I imagine there will be a time when the cycle of the group wanes. Waxing and waning are normal elements, and just because there is declining energy doesn’t mean it is time to give up. It means it is time to have honest conversations with each other about expectations and needs. Sometimes those conversations will lead to tremendous fruit that will bring the group closer and to a deeper place again, struggling through conflict with integrity usually does bear fruit. And sometimes those conversations will lead to the realization that this is no longer the season for this kind of gathering. In that case I highly recommend ending well rather than just fizzling out. Beginnings and endings need to be done with intention and awareness around their power and usually involve telling stories about self at the start and about self-in-community at the end. And if one person needs to leave before the group is ready to end, then there needs to be great attention and care paid to that transition.
Take-Away:Why do you think people come to your group? What does being together do for you? What are the benefits of belonging to this kind of Soultribe?
These are women who know me on a soul level. As someone who regularly facilitates spiritual experiences for others, it is absolutely essential that I have places where I can share honestly my own struggles and journey in a safe space. I believe this is true for anyone, but especially those of us who are in some kind of power relationship in our work of spiritual care. We need places to process what gets triggered in ourselves so it doesn’t get worked out in our ministry, our jobs, even our parenting I would imagine. We all need safe spaces where we can be free to explore the full range of our experience of the sacred which includes our doubts and moments of despair as well, the work of the soul. We need peers on the journey who can help us to see things we couldn’t have seen about ourselves on our own. We need the language of art to move out of our heads and into the body as a source of profound wisdom for our lives.
Many thanks to Christine for taking the time to share her experiences with us here in the Soultribe series. You can find Christine at Abbey of the Arts, where she writes about creative spirituality; hosts Poetry Parties; and announces her classes, books and beautiful full-color Relective Art Journals. Thanks too to Jolie Guillebeau who contributed to this process by donating a thank-you gift for Christine via our Sacred Commerce experiment. Jolie’s beadwork and paintings are available here. Thank you for being here!
Soultribes is an on-going series helping creative souls build a place to call home. Demonstrate your commitment to forming your tribe by adding this badge to your website, and follow us on Twitter to read the next edition. “There ain’t no where to go but together!”