helping people find their way

Intentional Communities: Some pitfalls and questions

Authenticity: An Example

I have recently come across a website called, a business run by a group of coaches, relationship, leadership and communication experts.

On their ‘Authentic Community Leadership’ training site (  it is stated that:

“At Authentic World, we’ve created an “Authentic Community” that flies in the face of this destructive cultural trend, [of disconnection and isolation] where each person feels deeply Seen, connected and nourished in their relationships.”

Furthermore, they explain  that “We consider Community ‘Authentic’ to the degree that every person is known, loved and celebrated for all of who they are — their unique gifts, AS WELL AS their quirky insecurities, kinks and blindspots! Time and time again we see Authentic Community naturally evolve into a culture honoring emotional, spiritual and interpersonal growth — where we support each other through acknowledgement, raw honesty, feedback & reflection, as well as good-natured teasing, laughter, challenge and play!”

It struck me that many of these values are inherent to psychotherapies, and given the group’s backgrounds, most likely taken from the field of therapy and personal growth. I was interested by my response to the proposal and vision of authentic relationships and authentic community. Despite the fact that authenticity and the art of ‘being real’ is a value I hold dear, and despite my conviction that more therapeutic values need to be taken out of the confines of the consulting room into the real world, I had rather mixed feelings about this initiative. Why I wondered ?


A list of concerns came to me. They reflect in part my own experiences within intentional communities and some of the dynamics that I have observed. It is not intended to be a description of the processes occurring at authentic world specifically.

Self consciousness and artificiality:

Despite my valuing of authenticity and realness in people and myself, in my experience there is an inherent danger that by bringing these intentions and values into focus and turning them into the latest ‘thing’ there is a tendency for a self-consciousness, which can seriously undermine the stated aim. By singling out ‘authenticity’ as a value we run the danger of becoming self-conscious about trying to achieve such a quality in ourselves and our interactions. This can make us more cautious about simply ‘being’, and this self-consciousness can give interactions a much more stilted and artificial quality – the exact opposite to what we set out to achieve. An ideal thus can detract from our ‘natural being’ by inserting a hierarchy of values. The one in focus becomes an elevated one, which an individual or a group aspires to and identifies with.

This can turn into ways of relating which can end up feeling rather artificial and sometimes profoundly inauthentic as it can turn the focus away from the ideal and onto the self as the holder of such a value. What tends to happen in this case is that we become identified with an idea of who we are which leads to a more or less self-conscious enactment of behaviours we believe attest to such a quality. An example of this would be a person who has a greater emotional investment in and identifies with the idea of themselves as an artist rather than just producing art as a natural expression of their being.

Group Norms:

Social groups have a tendency to create a range of norms,  often unspoken ones (ie values, behaviours, language), which its members adhere to and look out for. The stated aim and purpose of a group usually creates such a norm. This can lead to subtle pressures for people to comply with group standards and  expectations in order to be part of the community and have a sense of belonging. This can mean that the espoused value can become secondary to the need to belong. Of course it can be argued that the need to belong is a primary, implicit value in most shared human activities, and ideals and values are always secondary to it. Suffice it to say that there can be a tension between these two.

Competition and inflation:

Values and ideals which become group norms can bring forth competitive elements within and amongst its members, ie who does it better, who’s more genuine etc.? This is profoundly antithetical to a value such as authenticity. In addition, there is always the danger of elevating our own position above other people’s in a self-congratulatory and smug kind of way. A lot of the time these processes operate unconsciously and often only outsiders can observe them more clearly in action as group members tend to be too preoccupied with pursuing a value they hold dear and are often blind to underlying, implicit dynamics.

Being right:

‘Being right’ is connected to inflation as it elevates our own position above others’.  Whilst this does not pose a problem when one participant actually has superior knowledge in a particular subject area it can create interesting, and frequently excruciating dynamics when there are two or more knowledgable participants disagreeing on an issue of mutual concern (eg regarding the notion of shadow or authenticity) who end up using their knowledge as a weapon. This is ultimately aimed at a sense of self-gratification and self-righteousness through the vehicle of the power of knowledge. The way this tends to manifest is by either one or both participants pointing out the deficits and shortcomings of the other’s knowledge, latest information, and depth of understanding. This usually has nothing to do with the subject under discussion but more often than not tends to be about interpersonal and intrapsychic dynamics.

Naivite and Shadow:

The focus on an ideal always has the potential to bring forth its opposite, its shadow. To my mind authenticity more easily accommodates the notion and experience of shadow as it allows for the expression of a greater spectrum of human experience compared to much more one-sided notions such as‘wanting to be a better person’ or wanting to be more loving’. These latter values emphasise only one aspect of a dichotomy and hence neglect the shadow in a way that ‘being real’ does not. However, as the above points show,  I am in danger here of enacting the very thing I am writing about as any value, including authenticity, has an opposite, which mostly operates unconsciously and occasionally pops up to the surface and becomes visible.

My concern with a neglect or ignorance of shadow dynamics is that it can create very one-sided cultures like the contemporary ‘happiness’ culture where people can end up feeling they have to apologise for, hide, or repress any feelings, which aren’t happy, which we are all bound to have at various points in time. The crucial point here is that the focus on a particular ideal can impair the potential for a fuller expression of our humanity. Focusing somewhat naively on the achievement of a particular intention or value frequently constellates its shadow which can sneak up on us in unsuspecting ways when we are not looking.  Being aware of such dynamics doesn’t necessarily prevent them from occurring, as frequently there is a discrepancy between our conscious intentions and what actually happens within human communities, although an awareness of these processes can certainly mitigate their impact.

Shadow dynamics are continuous and never go away. They can never be exhaustively ‘dealt with’ but need to be monitored and addressed when they arise. Generally speaking, these dynamics tend to manifest further down the track, as the beginnings of endeavours are usually characterised by an enthusiasm for something new.

Values and Human Dynamics

Reflecting on the above it became clear that it is a description of the potential pitfalls of intentional communities – which is not to say that there aren’t many benefits and postive aspects which intentional communities manifest in the world. The above describes processes which occasionally occur within intentional communities in general using the value or intention of ‘authenticity’ as an example to demonstrate some of the human dynamics involved. These human dynamics are experienced and need to be dealt with by most if not all human communities to a greater or lesser extent. There is a tension between focusing on a value or ideal, and at the same time having an awareness of and monitoring the simultaneous human intrapsychic, interpersonal and group dynamics, which can undermine the strived for values in subtle and unsuspecting ways. One answer to this dilemma is to have a skillful guide, or alternatively, an empowered group of individuals familiar with these processes.

But even when there is awareness of these issues such cultures can and do emerge. Examples abound of intentional communities which can have high levels of awareness of many of the dynamics outlined, but this does not necessarily prevent them from being charged with falling into the same traps, which they may be consciously trying to avoid. The reason for this most likely is that human beings with differing levels of awareness are involved, and the bigger the group becomes the harder it gets to monitor and keep an eye on these often subtle processes. Another reason is that awareness of these issues is not necessrily identical with an ability to live such an awareness. Importantly, it is probably fair to say that few groups are equally committed to both values/intentions as well as human dynamics, but rather tend to focus on either one or the other.

One reason for this might be the complexities involved in trying to address and keep an eye on both. The danger of focusing on the intrapsychic/interpersonal and group dynamics is that an intentional community can degrade into a quasi therapy group, focused on investigating its human dynamics and thus losing sight of the espoused value, whilst the opposite, the danger of focusing on a value and having it gradually and quietly corrupted by invisible and subtle human dynamics constitutes the main content of this communication. So the question becomes ‘how do we hold the value whilst keeping an eye on the human dynamics?’

Personal Experience

For a number of years now, I have been convening a small group focused on the notion of ‘soul’. My concern with such a focus right from the beginning was the difference between having a soulful experience which just happens amongst people, and hence is a much more implicit quality, and a conscious attempt at creating such an atmosphere and focus by making it more explicit through discussion of the notion itself and referencing what happens against this value. This dichotomy has been an ongoing internal struggle for me and I have tried to hold both lightly, having frequent doubts in the process.

What I have come to realise is that it is more about creating an atmosphere which allows certain values to flourish, or which is conducive to their emergence, without wanting to consciously ‘manufacture’ or ‘will’ them. Hence it is about creating a space within ourselves and the group/community and then handing it over and offering it to life, which always runs the risk (and the potential?!) of it not turning out the way we had imagined it. Ideally, there needs to be an active and a receptive element for this process to unfold productively. The active part of course is the initial and subsequent impulses which we provide to manifest the value in the world. The receptive part is handing it over and being able to receive what happens, whether we like it or not – whilst still holding an awareness of the ongoing processes and being able to respond to and negotiate them. However, the guide/convener, or the group as a whole, holds a responsibility to the ideal, holding its presence in the group in a way which makes it accessible under the right conditions. Our culture tends to teach us much more about the active aspect than about the receptive one.

I don’t profess to have the final answers to these issues and don’t believe there are any final answers. What I am trying to describe are continuously emerging and shifting dynamic processes occurring within human communities. If there is any answer at all it lies in my mind in being aware of the potential processes that may arise, and in monitoring them and engaging with them in constantly shifting and adaptive ways depending on the needs of the moment. This means that we need to be prepared to deal with the issues if and when they arise without being too self-conscious about having to be constantly alert to these dynamics in the process. This includes a lightly held, ongoing awareness of the possibility that we may get caught out by unconscious shadow dynamics without worrying too much about this occurring.  However, such a lightly held background awareness can foster a sense of humility and modesty which I believe tends to enhance authentic human relationships.