Chapter 1: Growth Groups Key to Aliveness

Growth Groups
by Howard J. Clinebell, Jr.

Chapter 1: Growth Groups Key to Aliveness

The aim of life is to be fully born, though its tragedy is that most of us die before we are thus born. To live is to be born every moment. ... Death occurs when birth stops.... The answer is to develop one's awareness, one's reason, one's capacity to love, to such a point that one transcends one's own egocentric involvement, and arrives at a new harmony, at a new oneness with the world.

Erich Fromm, "Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis"1

The Everestlike issue that now towers over mankind is life -- its quality, perhaps even its survival. The perspective of moon flights has sharpened our awareness that our spaceship "earth" is a small, precious oasis of life in the vast, frigid void of cosmic space. Can we make it a place where life can flourish for all our fellow passengers? A place where the possibilities of a fully developed life will not be crushed for millions by poverty, disease, injustice, violence, ignorance, and despair?

In our nations and communities, the quality of life is the imperative issue. Can we learn to love and respect the natural world? Can we stop poisoning ourselves by contaminating our air, our rivers, our oceans? Can we stop squandering our natural resources and give thought to the quality of life for our children and our children's children? Can we make our social environment -- especially our deteriorating inner cities -- places of life and growth, rather than misery and despair?

The quality of life is also the issue in our institutions; lightning-fast social change has made many of these ineffective in meeting contemporary human needs. How can more of our schools make education a continuing adventure of the mind? How can we help more people on job treadmills find fulfillment in their work? How can our churches make religion what it should be -- an experience of liberation, healing, and fulfillment of the spirit? How can we awaken the joy, the lift, the celebration?

The quality of life is also the issue in our family relations. Many of us are "successful" in all areas of our lives except those that count most -- our intimate relationships. Can we make our homes function more as the growth-centers they should be and less as the factories for programming conformity, which they often are? In marriage, the most promising area for mutual growth, too few of us learn to find fulfillment. We live alone together, settling for half-marriages or less.

The quality of life is very much an issue in our individual worlds. Gallup pollsters asked a cross-section of Americans whether they experience life as dull and routine, or as exciting. Fifty-one percent said their lives were dull and routine! Among people over 50, 60 percent find life dull.2 Psychologists have declared that most of us use only a small fraction of our brainpower, our creativeness, our personality potential. What a waste of our most precious gift!

I was made aware of this during a recent backpack trip down into the Grand Canyon. A ranger-naturalist, discussing the geology of that magnificent chasm, pointed out that each step down took the hiker back 30,000 years in geological time. As we descended to Bright Angel Creek near the Colorado, I was suddenly confronted with the fact of the brevity and fragility of human life -- my own and that of those I love. I was forced to ask myself some painful questions: how am I using my brief days on the earth? am I treating life -- my own and others' -- as the precious thing it is?

What is a Growth Group?

How does all this relate to growth groups? Life can flourish on our planet, among nations, and in our cities and institutions, only if we say "Yes!" to the life within us. Growth groups are instruments for enlivening individuals and relationships. They're human potentials groups, designed to help us discover and use more of our latent resources.

As used herein, the term "growth group" is any group, whatever its name, with three characteristics: ( 1 ) A dominant (though not exclusive) purpose is the personal growth of participants -- emotionally, interpersonally, intellectually, spiritually. (2) A growth-facilitating style of leadership is used -- first by the designated leader and gradually by the entire group so that the group itself becomes an instrument of growth. (3) The growth-orientation is the guiding perspective; the emphasis is more on unused potential, here-and-now effectiveness in living, and future goals -- than on past failures, problems, and pathology.

To be maximally effective, a growth group should have these additional characteristics: (4) The group is composed of relatively functional people so that its aim is "making well people better."3 (5) It is small enough to allow group trust and depth relationships to develop. (6) There is a two-way movement from personal feelings to relevant content, i.e., it blends group counseling and person-centered education. (7) Applying learning from group experiences to relationships outside the group is encouraged as an essential part of personal growth. (8) The group encourages constructive changes in both attitudes and feelings on the one hand, and in behavior and relationships on the other.4

The growth-orientation -- in contrast to the sickness-orientation which has characterized classical psychotherapy and most group therapy -- is a distinct way of viewing people and the helping process. For example, in marriage growth groups, issues such as these are emphasized: What do you like about each other and your relationship? How can you build on these things? What kind of marriage do you want to have in six months? What do you need to start doing now to move toward that? The focus of traditional therapy -- on negative feelings, accumulated hurts and frustrations, patterns of relating to the past -- are not ignored, (Growth often occurs as one -- by choosing to live in the present -- breaks the tyranny which the past has been allowed to wield over one's life.) but they are always balanced by the positive growth emphasis.

In contrast to the pathology orientation, the growth approach elicits different responses from people, draws on different sides of their personalities (the healthy sides ), and suggests that help lies in a different direction -- setting goals and working toward them rather than striving mainly to repair damaged areas of relationships and personalities.

When a person learns to use his latent resources, it often becomes unnecessary to deal in depth with his "pathology." He may become a more effective person without having to cope extensively with his hangups from the past. Viable hopes and plans for the future can pull a person as insistently as his past pushes him. In growth groups, the growth-perspective is central. It functions like a pair of eyeglasses, permitting leader and group members to see each other in terms of what they can become. This is a liberating perception.

A person whose growth has been frozen for years ( as indicated by rigid, neurotic, or disturbed behavior) often cannot respond to an unmodified growth approach until psychotherapy frees him to use everyday relationships and groups to nurture his growth. The most effective forms of therapy today focus on both healing and growth.

Unlike most therapy groups, growth groups often use "headlevel input" -- the study of a selection or brief statement on adolescent psychology, for example, as a kickoff for a parents' session on youth. In contrast to the procedure of most "study groups," the content is dealt with on a personal level, in terms of the feelings, struggles, hopes, and goals of the members. The content is chosen to stimulate interaction or to fill explicit needs of members. Unlike therapy groups, growth groups may have task- as well as growth-goals -- e.g., social action or women's liberation groups. The task is valuable in itself, but it is also used as an opportunity for growth. Because the growth group setup aims at increasing coping skills as well as awakening persons to themselves, it can be adapted to many task goals.

A good growth group aims at a balanced emphasis on the three interdependent dimensions of human development -- inreach, outreach and upreach. Inreach refers to growth in awareness -- coming alive to oneself. The walls between us are extensions of the walls within us. Inreach means relating responsibly and responsively to oneself -- taking one's own feelings and needs seriously. Outreach means relating responsibly and responsively to others. It involves developing a life-style of "generativity" -- psychoanalyst Erik Erikson's apt term for generating life in the ongoing stream of society -- living in terms of the growth needs of the family of man. Upreach refers to growth of a stronger, more trustful connection with the vertical dimension -- with the Source of all life and growth. Attention to upreach growth is just as vital in a school or secular group as in church or temple. Vertical issues are not just the concern of churches. They are the profoundly human issues that face us all.

The Directions of Growth

The guiding purpose of growth groups, as we have seen, is to

enhance the quality of life -- to help each participant (member

or leader) become more fully alive.

I am alive to the degree I am dead to the degree

that I am
-- that I am --

Aware: in touch with my feelings Out of touch with myself.

and with my body.

Relating (communicating) with Living in the solitary confinement

others in depth. of a world of walls.

Authentic: open and congruent. Phony: hidden, playing a cover-up

Owning myself. role.

Loving: spontaneously caring and Manipulating: defensively con-

giving myself in relationships. trolling for egocentric ends.

Enjoying: pleasuring, playing, cel- Plodding: caught in the rat race I

ebrating life. have created.

Spontaneous: free to experience Compulsive: programmed, driven

and to choose. by the oughts and the shoulds.

Creating: making or doing some- Vegetating: treadmilling.

thing satisfying and/or significant.

Risking: adventuring. Playing it safe: living in my box.

Present in the here-and-now, en- Existing in memories and future

riched by past/future. fantasies; not present.

Coping responsibly with circum- Being "lived" by circumstances;

stances. blaming, projecting responsibility.

Connected with the Source -- na- Isolated -- "an orphan in the uni-

ture, the human race, God. verse."

Growing toward using more of my Stagnating or regressing in the

potentialities. use of my gifts

Summarizing these goals, a growth group provides an interpersonal environment in which persons can become more aware, relating authentic, loving, enjoying, spontaneous, creating, risking, present, coping, and connected with the Source. It is in this process of fulfilling one's potential for full aliveness that one experiences inner affirmation and joy.

Growth groups aim at helping each person discover and move along his own unique road. Within an atmosphere that values aliveness and lets it flower, the individual finds growth directions which are in some ways as unique as his fingerprints. But human needs are similar enough that group members usually empathize with each other's goals. The young man who declared passionately, "I want to stop plodding and fly for a change!" found the whole group resonating to his aspirations.

In a frequently reprinted article, "Are You Alive?"5 Stuart Chase distinguished between "living" and "existing." He was living, he says, when he experienced love, friendship, danger, play, laughter, art, food when hungry, sleep when tired, the mountains, sea, and stars. In contrast, he only existed when his lot was drudgery, or attending social functions, or experiencing ugliness and monotony. Of the 168 hours in the previous week, he found that he had lived only 40 of them. How about the past week in your life? The purpose of growth groups is to improve the ratio on the side of living.

How Does Growth Occur?

Knowing how growth occurs can help one facilitate the process in a group:

Everyone has within him an impulse to develop his potentialities. This drive is our fundamental resource in education, counseling, and growth groups. The teacher's, counselor's, and group leader's most indispensable skill is his ability to awaken this drive. Some people have squelched the growth urge for so long that they're oblivious to it. The drive continues to express itself, however, in vague restlessness, in general apathy, or in the guilt/depression/anger syndrome that results from dammed-up growth.

The growth drive is stimulated or blocked by the quality of relationships. Growth occurs in a relationship in which there is mutual feeding of the basic heart-hungers -- the hunger for love, affirmation, freedom, pleasure, adventure, meaning. Shallow, manipulative relating (which is all that many people do), blocks growth and damages self-esteem. If such I-it relationships dominate one's early life, the growth drive becomes encrusted in defensiveness and fear; resistance to growth becomes intense. Growth-stimulating relationships are warm, caring, and trustful at the same time that they are honest, confronting, and open. Caring + confrontation = growth! This is the growth formula.

Growth is an inner fulfillment and unfolding. Growth-producing relationships nurture and release an inner process; manipulation or attempts to coerce the person to change do not produce growth. The patterns and direction of growth reflect the person's individuality. Growth results from discovering, affirming, and rejoicing in who one truly is, rather than pursuing an idealized image of what one should be. Becoming takes place by being.

Growth is an experience of the whole person in many areas -- (Growth groups function at various levels, depending on the goals and the leadership.) -- feelings, behavior, attitudes, relationships. Changes in any area often trigger changes in other areas. By choosing to use your present freedom to relate to others more authentically and responsibly, you enhance your self-esteem. By choosing to be true to yourself now, you help create your future.

The small sharing group is the ideal arena for deepening relationships and consequently accelerating growth. To continue growing, every person requires a depth relationship with at least one other human being. A small network of depth relationships is even better. The group is an interpersonal laboratory for testing and learning better ways of relating. It provides a place to do one's "growth work -- that essential struggle to let go of costly but comfortable defenses against growth -- and to find and own oneself.

Small group methods are most effective with relatively whole people whose growth impulses are active and accessible. These are people who, in Abraham Maslow's terms, are motivated at least as strongly by self-actualization trends (the need to grow) as by deficiency needs (the hunger for security, respect, love, etc.).6 Those with intense deficiency needs require therapy; those with a predominance of self-actualization needs respond to growth-oriented methods. The pain of deficiency needs provides the push of therapy; the pull of self-actualization tendencies is a major motivation for growth. Relatively healthy people have sufficiently gratified their basic needs so that their self-actualization or growth drives can function freely.( There are times when all of us experience intense deficiency needs and other times when our growth needs may be dominant. In some persons, one or the other is dominant most of the time.) Growth-motivated people experience growth, in itself, as a rewarding, exciting process.

The growth-facilitating style of leadership can be learned by anyone who is relatively open with himself and others -- or is willing to undergo the therapeutic and growth experiences to become so.

Institutions become viable to the degree that they provide opportunities for human growth and fulfillment. Renewal in churches, schools, and agencies will occur only as they become human development centers!

A Plan for a Growth-Oriented Community

Developing well-led, inexpensive, and accessible groups is a high priority goal for our communities. Visualize a city with a network of growth groups in each neighborhood available to people of all ages and sponsored by schools, churches, and community agencies as well as corporations unions, professional associations, and fraternal groups. Perhaps neighborhood organizations could also sponsor groups for their members. In such a growth-oriented community, the people dynamic would be taken seriously and the wealth of previously unused human potential would contribute to improving the quality of life in that community.

In every community there are hundreds of ordinary, functioning people who -- when they let themselves feel -- long to experience more vividly, relate more pleasurably, and work more effectively. Some will meet their needs by going to Esalen-type growth centers. But the vast majority will not, because such centers seem too expensive, too distant, too exotic. Growth groups in local communities could provide a periodic "growth boost" to enhance living and relating for these relatively healthy persons.

The basic resources for developing community growth networks already exist. Hundreds of educators, clergymen, and counselors are already experimenting with growth-oriented groups, and many others are eager to find group approaches for releasing human potential. Some 100 or more growth institutes operate in North America, and many colleges and seminaries now provide training in group methods. How rapidly growth-oriented communities develop depends, to a considerable extent, on people like you. If you see growth groups as a means of improving life for people in your organization or community, join one or use your influence to help launch new groups with well-trained leaders. Or, if you have the inclination and aptitudes, obtain the necessary training to lead groups yourself. In short, become a "committee of one" dedicated to the fullest possible use of the people dynamic in your community.

Varieties of Growth Groups

The versatility and adaptability of the growth group approach can be suggested by listing some of the types of groups which have proved to be productive; groups such as these could be included in a community's growth network:

Youth groups to work through unfinished personal identity.

Preparation for marriage groups.

"Keeping Our Marriage Growing" groups (recently married).

Marriage enrichment groups for parents of young children; for parents of adolescents (middle marrieds); and for empty nest marriages.

"Making the Most of Maturity" groups (over-40 groups).

Groups for singles.

Play groups for normal children.

Parent-child and parent-youth dialogue groups

Preparation for childbirth, leaving home, retirement (and other developmental crises) groups.

Study-growth groups with a dual focus on intellectual and interpersonal growth (often centering on a book).

Liberation groups for women, for men, and for couples desiring fresh approaches to male/female roles.

Creativity groups using drama, poetry, painting, pottery, body movement (creative dance), yoga, etc. as a stimulus to growth.

Groups for coping constructively with common causes of stress -- e.g., aging parents, physical handicaps, a handicapped child, "'adolescing" children.

Action-growth groups with a dual focus on personal development and training for some significant task.

Spiritual growth groups aimed primarily at group interaction around meaning, values, and other religious growth issues.

Ecology groups for tuning in on nature and saving the environment.

Multiple-family groups (including communes).

Growth groups for the divorced.

Bereavement recovery groups.

Youth groups searching for nondrug ways of turning on.

Career development groups.

Follow-up groups for persons released from mental and correctional institutions.

Stage two groups for those who have found help in psychotherapy or self-help programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, Alanon, etc.

This list is only suggestive. The possible applications of the growth-group approach are limited only by the imagination and leadership resources available.

The Power of Growth

While reflecting on why the people dynamic which one encounters in small groups has such power, I came upon a moving passage from Loren Eiseley. In it he discusses the amazing development of man's brain which, in a relatively brief time ( anthropologically speaking), allowed him to emerge from animalism to self-awareness:

It was truly man who, walking memoryless through bars of sunlight and shade in the morning of the world, sat down and passed a wondering hand across his heavy forehead. Time and darkness, knowledge of good and evil have walked with him ever since.... A new world of terror and loneliness appears to have been created in the soul of man.

For the first time in four billion years, a living creature had contemplated himself and heard with a sudden unaccountable loneliness, the whisper in the night reeds. Perhaps he knew, there in the grass by the chill waters, that he had before him an immense journey.7

Perhaps it is this self-awareness, this existential loneliness, this sense of the vastness of the universe and our fragile place in it, that make all of us long for comrades to share the immense journey. Perhaps these considerations are at the roots of the will to relate; perhaps they account for the power of the people dynamic in our lives.

The Time is Now!

There is a special urgency about providing an enlarging network of varied growth opportunities. The pressures of massive loneliness, love-hunger, and diminished self-esteem already stand at explosive levels. In shallow, fleeting, manipulative, I-it relating there's nothing to replenish that most indispensable of inner resources, self-esteem. Consider the lethal implications of masses of humanity, filled with anger bred in loneliness and armed with technology's weapons for mutual destruction. The stakes are high!

The will to relate is the most powerful of human strivings. Only in and through relationships can we become pro-life people and work effectively for a society that supports human fulfillment. Growth groups constitute one important answer to this basic need. They provide opportunities to learn the interpersonal skills which alone can produce what we want -- better relationships, healthier personalities for our children, more fulfilling vocations and better communities -- in short, a more humanizing world.

In The Greening of America Charles Reich describes the profound changes now occurring in human consciousness:

There is a revolution coming. It will not be like revolutions of the past. It will originate with the individual and with culture.... It is now spreading with amazing rapidity.... It promises a higher reason, a more human community, a new and liberated individual. Its ultimate creation will be a new enduring wholeness and beauty -- a renewed relationship of man to himself, to other men, to society, to nature, and to the land.8

Reich's "Consciousness III" is characterized by the rediscovery of the self, genuine spontaneity, new relationships, the rebirth of celebration. These are precisely the kinds of changes which occur in growth groups.

There are some risks in growth groups. But the dangers and loss to society of not releasing the wealth of untapped human possibilities, make these risks seem small by comparison. Growth groups can help make the power of authentic relationships -- the people dynamic -- a liberating experience in community after community for the greening of the world. The time is now! The world won't wait! So let's do the thinking, strategizing and creative experimentation with small groups that is needed to develop islands of caring and growth in every part of the lonely sea which is our world.

Additional Reading -- Small Groups:

These books are related to the issues and topics of Chapters 1-3.

("L" = of interest primarily to group leaders. Others of general interest.)

L Burton, Arthur (Ed.), Encounter, The Theory and Practice of Encounter Groups. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1970.

Gardner, John W., Self-Renewal. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1964.

L Goldberg, Carl, Encounter: Group Sensitivity Training Experience. New York: Science House, 1970.

L Kemp, C. Gratton, Small Groups and Self-Renewal. New York: The Seabury Press, 1971.

Maslow, Abraham H., Toward a Psychology of Being. Princeton: D. Van Nostrand, 1962.

Maslow, Abraham H., Motivation and Personality, 2nd ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1970.

Murphy, Gardner, Human Potentialities. New York: Basic Books, 1961.

L Ohlsen, Merle M., Group Counseling. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970.

Ohnsted, Michael S., The Small Group. New York: Random House,1959.

Otto, Herbert A., Group Methods Designed to Actualize Human Potentials. Chicago: Achievement Motivation Systems, 1967.

Rogers, Carl R., Carl Rogers on Encounter Groups, New York Harper & Row, 1970.

L Ruitenbeek, H.M. (Ed.) Group Therapy Today New York: Atherton Press, 19~39.




1. D. T. Suzuki, Erich Fromm, and Richard DeMartino, Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), pp. 87-88.

2. Gallup Poll, Los Angeles Times, October 6, 1969, Part I, p. 34.

3. William C, Schutz, Joy, Expanding Human Awareness (New York: Grove Press, 1967), p. 10.

4. The term "encounter group" refers to one type of growth group. I prefer"growth group" because this term describes the purpose and orientation of the group, rather than a primary means -- encountering -- by which it is achieved. "Growth group," as used herein, includes more types of groups than usually covered by the term "encounter group."

5. First appearance, The Nation, 1922.

6. Abraham Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being, Chap. 3, "Deficiency Motivation and Growth Motivation."

7. Loren Eiseley, The Immense Journey ( New York: Vintage Books, Random House, 1957 ), pp. 125-26.

8. Charles Reich, The Greening of America (New York: Random House, 1970), p. 4.