Nigel Collingwood


A personal account of the Glastonbury Matrix, 2-4 November 1990
Nigel Collingwood

This event, jointly sponsored by URCHIN and Connect, took place in a number of rooms suitable for growth work, grouped around an old courtyard in the centre of Glastonbury. There were 15 participants (7 women and 8 men), the leader, David Wasdell, being assisted by two facilitators (one woman, one man).

After registration (where many people recognised friends and colleagues, and/or knew David and Evelyn, his assistant, already), and the first of a succession of excellent meals together, David introduced the Matrix. He explained its purpose as being to give opportunities for participants:

We would be working in groups of three on co-counselling lines (“co-consultative triads”); we would be encouraged to be alert to 4 dimensions of learning: verbal, symbolic (images, whether expressed verbally or in drawings etc.), somatic (body language, conscious and unconscious) and emotive; “feedback loops” would enable each sector (triads etc.) to include learning from all the other sectors. After formation, the triads would be meeting on six occasions. There would be three small group meetings, where one member of each triad would foregather with a facilitator, David himself acting as a third facilitator. There would be four meetings of the large group (i.e. plenary meetings), facilitated by David. He stressed the rich possibilities of this Matrix structure, in that members could benefit from a variety of contacts, sharing their experience. He also emphasised the opportunity of being open to intra-personal, inter-personal, inter-group reality, as well as to reality outside the whole Matrix – i.e. the whole world with its history and present condition. An optional meeting where theoretical models would be presented was also offered on the Saturday afternoon.

We were left to our own devices in forming our triads (which, like the small groups, kept the same membership throughout). Some were formed relatively easily; others required discussion and negotiation.

We were encouraged by David’s guidelines (which were available in written form after he had presented them orally) to use the triads to work on any material we chose. The format recommended was for one member at a time to “work”, the other two both being free to take a facilitative role. Thus we in effect were co-counselling, but the triad was different in that there were 12 ways of relating in a co-counselling manner (12 “Degrees of Freedom”), as opposed to the two ways that are possible between a pair who are counselling one another by turn. The number of ways is 12, and not 9, because there is a difference between having your two helpers, one on the right and other on the left, and having them arranged vice versa. This factor, which may sound pettifogging, proved to potent in my own triad for one, and issues concerning relative sitting positions frequently came up in the plenary sessions.

By dint of containing one member from each triad, as well as the facilitator (who was also a member of the facilitators’ triad), the small groups provided opportunity to deal with material that had come up in the triads, as well as to feed into the triads its own material. How far this occurred is not clear to me. From my own standpoint it seemed that the triad and the small group that I belonged to had only slight contact – but then, I reflect that any contact there was had to be made through one of us, including me. So I was consciously or unconsciously going along with the proceedings of both my triad and my small group in ways that made this contact not very salient.

However, in my small group we did work on some specific problems brought up by members, using not only talking methods but also drawing (including drawing with the left hand by right-handed people and vice versa) and movement and strong vocal expression. In other words we were using the therapeutic skills that were available among us, as envisaged in the prospectus for the event.

I noticed that in the small group and the triad that members, including myself, seemed reluctant to name people that they had been working with in the other grouping; even the facilitator was seldom named, when the small groups were being mentioned. This appeared to be done with a view to confidentiality. Did confidentiality really require that only the process of triad or small group could be communicated to the other grouping, or only the process plus a generalised description of the content?

The large group, i.e. the plenary, sessions were probably for most participants the most difficult and challenging part of the workshop. In the initial guidelines that David provided the large group was described as a place where people could participate in and observe group behaviour as it happened. In other words, it was presented in the manner of a Tavistock Institute large group, with this time no reference to bringing in material from the triads or small groups. Thus while the general tenor of the workshop’s guidelines put an emphasis on including all levels of human being from the earliest individual (conception) to the largest group (world population with all its previous history), this was not spelt out in relation to the large group. This may help to explain why it had very much the feel of Tavistock Institute groups to start with. Some felt that nothing was happening, to judge from what was said (but see the discussion of theory below). Also there were times when David’s manner reminded me of consultants at those groups, although at other times he was much more free in the expression of his own feelings than the Tavistock tradition would allow. However, the breadth of perspective that was the aim of the workshop was taken up increasingly, as a number of themes and polarities came to the surface and then receded. These included a number of the splits that are readily identified in our world: hetero/homosexuality; black/white; Jew/Gentile; man/woman; father/mother. Also more general divisions appeared, as between giving and withholding energy, being present or absent in the group. Other themes were ecological destruction and nuclear annihilation, religious rituals and the Arthurian legend along with the whole mystical tradition centred on Glastonbury over the last 12,000 years. David helped to bring these out with many telling interventions. If he occasionally seemed to be merely punning, on reflection I realised that he was keeping his and our ears open to the underlying fantasies that are apparent only to those who listen for emotionally loaded words, phrases and images.

For me the most precious moments were when members’ (including my own) internal pain and/or defensive manoeuvres to avoid it were experienced as resonating with external splits and defences in the group as a whole, and also in our society at large. This was when I experienced the workshop as really working: the endless conversation between social reality as we construct it and private reality that we build up within ourselves could be clearly heard, and its usually hidden power fleetingly brought to light.

To explain what I mean by that last paragraph it will be necessary to go into the theoretical field that David mapped out in a voluntary session on the Saturday afternoon. Of course this will be my own interpretation of what he presented.

Theoretical interlude

The central point of the theory is simple but profound. Start from the Freudian insight that each person has an area of which they are conscious and an area of which they are unconscious. Now look at two people who are in contact with one another. There will be an area of which both are conscious; there will be two areas of which one but not the other is conscious; and there will be an area of which neither is conscious. This last can be called their shared, or common, unconscious area.

If these two people work entirely in the area of which both are conscious, they will avoid anything that could embarrass either of them on the grounds that it would be better kept unconscious. In other words, they will collude with one another in leaving out, “denying”, the areas of which either or both are unconscious. Thus it is a Collusional pair.

If one (“A”) of the pair attends to the area of which the other is unconscious but is available to the awareness of the former, while both remain unconscious of their shared unconscious area, then A may well facilitate the other to discover what has hitherto been unknown to them. But note that while A is attending in this way, they are both still colluding in the avoidance of the shared unconscious area. This is what happens regularly in therapy. The client’s unconscious area is to be worked on, not the therapist’s, and neither is prepared to look at what they both repress. Thus it is what may be called a Therapeutic pair.

If both people take a therapeutic stance, so that each is now attending to the area of which the other is unconscious, while they still avoid their shared unconscious area, then collusion is avoided in respect of the material of which only one is unconscious. But there is still collusion in respect of the shared area of unconsciousness. This is what happens in co-counselling. Thus it is a Co-counselling pair.

Finally, if both people work on all areas, including that of which both are unconscious, then they will at least be trying to avoid any collusion. It is certainly difficult to work in this area of shared unconsciousness, but it can be chipped away. This is the only way to achieve real growth and development between two people. Thus it is a “Developmental” pair.

Now, people relate to one another in groups of all sizes from the pair to the triad to the team of 11 or 15, to the group of 60... In whatever size of group there will always be an area of shared, or common, unconsciousness.

At first sight this area might seem to get smaller as the group gets bigger. But that is to assume that material falls into the area of consciousness or unconsciousness on an even basis, as if by chance. Certainly it is true that if chance were operating, then the likelihood of a given piece of information falling into the area of shared, common, unconsciousness belonging to a group of n people would be:

Experiencing 1

But if we look at how the area of which an individual is unconscious is created, we notice that it is (at least to an important extent) related to painful experiences that have been repressed. So if there were painful experiences that virtually everyone had had, then we would expect virtually everyone to be unconscious of those experiences, i.e. to have forgotten them and relegated them to the area of which they are all unconscious. What might such experiences be? A priori, one would expect them to include early experiences that we all have had (though no doubt with significant variations), namely the experiences of being in the womb and of being born. Research suggests that life-threatening crises can occur not only about the time of birth (normally a process of which the baby is acutely conscious) but right back to implantation and even conception. Distress before and during birth seems to be partly due to the fact that the human head has developed faster than the width of the cervix of the womb.

However, the real test of the theory is whether material from this unconscious area surfaces in groups in a way that is parallel to the surfacing, within individuals, of material from that individual’s own area of unconsciousness (e.g. in dreams, Freudian slips or body movements). The answer is yes, such material does surface, especially at times when a group is threatened with extinction. Just as some individual behaviour is best understood as the person “acting out”, or re-enacting, some experience which they have not yet been able to resolve or bring to its conclusion, so groups can be seen to act out, re-enact, aspects of the experiences which they have all shared but not yet been able to conclude.

Clearly this theory has enormous possibilities for helping to explain the irrational behaviour of large groups, such as wars, just as the Freudian theory applied to individuals has proved to be illuminating in regard to the irrational behaviour of individuals. It is these possibilities that the Glastonbury Matrix was set up to explore, using a moderate-sized group of 18 people. What we were encouraged to look out for (and it’s difficult to do this while you’re involved in what is happening yourself) was the following type of event: when what was going on in the group was determined largely by what everyone was unconscious of, and thus appeared irrational, but for one or two members this particular material was within their own area of consciousness; these one or two people might then be able to voice or otherwise express what was repressed by the others; for many of the others the material might still be too deeply repressed for them to grasp what was going on, in which case they would probably feel that “nothing was happening” or whatever was happening was incomprehensible; but for one or two more the voicing by the first one or two might help them get closer to material that was already near enough to the surface of consciousness. For myself I found that it was only by going through a number of such puzzling and then perhaps later clarifying processes, and then reflecting on them afterwards, that I have come to see that groups do indeed seem to function in this strange manner – powerfully influenced by that of which they are most unconscious.

Returning now to giving an account of the workshop

As an example of the kind of resonation between what was happening in the group with what was happening within an individual that I have just been describing in general terms, I will use an experience of mine in the last session of the large group, just before the final, “exit from the Matrix”, session of the workshop. The atmosphere was that we were near the end, and were in danger of avoiding real, present issues by going after generalities. Someone had responded to what was going on by reporting a feeling in the region of the belly that they could not name. I was feeling somewhat shaky in the belly and chest, and said that I had a belly feeling, and I named it as terror. I went on to identify it as terror: in face of guns facing me across whatever Gulf there was between me and them. I think it was then that I also responded to someone’s mention of a boat sailing with a man chained to the mast. I thought of Odysseus, but without mentioning his name I said that the boat had, in the story, to go between Scylla and Charybdis, and that the thing about them was that they drew people towards them. (On reflection I now think I was conflating Scylla and Charybdis with the Sirens, who did have that fateful character.) Then I said in a rather flat voice (as though I'd moved from emotional involvement more into my head) that the two dangers were in fact starvation and nuclear destruction. Afterwards it occurred to me that the terror, in face of two large, black, round threats, resonated with some pre-birth work I'd done with David, and his intervention at about that point in the large group seemed to remind me of that work. David later pointed out to me that at that time there were two women in black sitting together across from me in the group. Thus this experience of mine can be understood at various levels: as an imaginative response to what I was seeing; as a return to a regressive state that I’d already explored; as my own response to, and resonation with, what was just beginning to become conscious within the group as a whole and so surfacing in the contributions of various members (or remaining just below the surface in their unconscious movements, gestures, postures, and in the way in which they used the space of the room, e.g. by making a gap in the seating at a certain point). I subsequently learnt that others had felt terror in that session; another person reported pressure on the head, suggestive of the final stage of birth, when I was speaking of terror. All this fits in with the theory that where a group is facing its demise, there are likely to be elements of regression to pre- and peri-natal painful experiences of the threat of annihilation.

A little later in the same large group I was anxious that the workshop, and that particular final event, might fail to achieve what we had hoped for. Yeats’ line “a terrible beauty is born” (from Easter 1916) was in my mind at that time. Later I reflected that perhaps I was afraid that the beautiful Glastonbury Matrix would be stillborn after all. In general I was conscious during that session of trying to get to the heart of things, of trying to reach deep feeling while staying in touch both with the process of the group and the political situation. Perhaps I had a messianic fantasy, being the co-ordinator of Connect, co-sponsor of the event, daring to enter areas that the group seemed to me to be skirting around. I also had a sense of playing a trump card, when I had a feeling, when another participant had felt unable to name one (I’m careful now to avoid claiming that it was the “same” feeling). Again, in that I spoke directly of terror and with what felt like intensity, I was doing what I have many times done in groups: trying to outdo the rest by being more deserving of sympathy and pity than anyone else. The line of poetry here (reference not found) would be: “O ye who pass by, what sorrow is like unto my sorrow?” I am mentioning this because I think it important not to exclude my own personal dynamics from this account. (The Tavistock people speak of one’s having a “valency” for a particular phase or role in the life of a group; eg someone’s need to be depended on will fit a Dependency phase.)

Writing 7 weeks later I am more convinced than at the time that the workshop did achieve its aim. These difficult issues, and our resistances to them, were revealed, insofar as we were each able to notice them. Cynics may say there was much suggestion going on. But no group is convened without expectations and influences. Ultimately it is a matter of personal conviction, or personal surmise, or personal grudging admission, that the case for mutual influence between our deepest inner experiences and the history and institutions of our society, has or has not been strengthened by such an event as the Glastonbury Matrix. For me, it has.