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Group Awareness Exercises (CASPER Groups)



Dear friends,

This idea arose out of a weekly "dialogue group" I participated in for a couple of years in the early 1990s, led by my friend, therapist/yoga teacher Jeff Groethe. I miss the sense of adventure and learning I got in those meetings. It was a time of rapidly-increasing insights into co-intelligence and deepening of my awareness and competence in groups. And since then I've thought of further group-awareness activities I'd like to experiment with.

So I've decided to resurrect Jeff's dialogue group, but in a new form that suits my needs and visions, including the possibility that it might spread to other people and take many new forms. I'm tentatively calling this new group-experience activity a CASPER group, perhaps because it is so friendly and yet (at least at this point) so phantasmal (for those of you who may not know, "Casper" is the name of "the friendly ghost" popular with children in the 1950's and 60s).

Below is a description of the idea and an invitation for local (Eugene, OR) people to participate in the first pilot group, and for others to start their own CASPER groups. You may want to skip the initial descriptive material to go right to the sample proposed group awareness exercises.



* * * *


CASPER is a clumsy, whimsical acronym that stands for

C ommunication
A wareness
S eminar /
P rocess
E xperience
R ituals


A CASPER group consists of 6-10 people (and usually at least 2 alternates) who meet for 6-10 weekly or bi-weekly sessions to practice together various group activities that enhance their capacity to be fully present with themselves, each other and the group. In many cases, the rituals contradict mainstream styles of communication in important ways. These contradictions pull participants out of habitual patterns of communication, thought, feeling, and responsiveness, into a greater present-time awareness of what's happening in and around them.

A CASPER group has a leader who convenes the group around rituals he or she wishes to practice or experiment with. The leader defines the group purpose and activity, and then recruits participants willing to sign on to whatever design the leader has established. A CASPER group leader may charge a fee or donation. If she or he does charge, the expected arrangement is a sliding scale of $1-$20 per person per session, but the leader can set up whatever makes sense for her or him.

A CASPER group is a structured seminar or training activity to provide participants with specific selected experiences. Its forms and purposes are specified by the leader, who may or may not have prior experience in the scheduled activities him/herself, but wants to share these specific experiences with others. A CASPER group is not a democratic decision-making group, although the group can (and probably will) make some decisions within the parameters defined by the leader. Anyone who wants something other than what the leader is doing, is strongly urged to become a leader and create with others the CASPER group that she/he wants. The design of a CASPER group is quite simple and, with a little bit of adventuresome spirit, almost anyone can put one together.

The first meeting always consists of people introducing themselves and their intentions and expectations. The leader describes what this particular series will entail and makes sure there is an adequate number of committed people. If anyone wants to drop out they should do so at that time, at which point they will be replaced by an alternate. The less turnover there is during the series, the better it is for everyone.

Most of the subsequent meetings (except for the last) consist of experiences or exercises chosen ahead-of-time by the leader and agreed to by the participants. Unless, of course, the leader has designed a "do it as we go" CASPER group.

The last meeting always consists of a review by participants of their experience of the whole series -- either in a circle or in a brainstorm (of positive, negative, and interesting aspects, plus what they may want to see happen in a subsequent CASPER group series). Participants also decide whether they'd like to remain together for another series involving practices they've already tried (or new ones), or if any of them would like to become leaders of new groups, either to continue experimenting with new approaches, or to deepen their practice of one or more that they've already learned.


Participation and Alternates

Ideally, all the core participants would be present at every meeting. Consistent participation is incredibly important in enabling cumulative group learning and depth of experience -- with sloppy attendence usually undermining the group experience and coherence. But the attendance conditions are up to the leader. A leader can require that each participant make a pledge at the first meeting to the other participants to attend every meeting or get a replacement from among the alternates. A leader could also charge a deposit which is returned at the end of the series, with specified amounts deducted for any meetings missed. Full participation would tend to be a significant goal in most CASPER groups.

Alternates can be "on-call" to replace people who can't come to a meeting, but it may be more useful to think of them as part-time participants. They need to attend at least the first meeting (in order to be oriented and known) and then may attend other meetings which the leader designates or agrees to -- usually at least one meeting in the series.

From the group's perspective, the primary role of an alternate is to replace absent core group members, thus preventing the group from shrinking below a certain size. From the alternates' perspective, they have (or may have) a chance to participate in at least some of the group sessions even though the group has been filled. Or perhaps the alternates are people who don't have time to commit to every session, but would like to attend one or a few. At the leader's discretion, alternates (a) may not attend meetings unless they're replacing an absent participant, (b) may attend certain meetings as a non-participant observer or (c) may attend certain meetings as full participants. For example, if a group of 8 is doing an activity that requires sub-groups of four people, the leader may tell the alternates to stay home. However, the leader may invite alternates to another activity that can be done just as well with 8, 9 or 10 people.

The central concern here is that the vast majority of the group show up for the vast majority of sessions, so that there is a solid core of ripening collective experience and coherence. Both leaders and participants should do what they can to achieve that.

A CASPER COMMUNITY is a network of CASPER group leaders and participants who stay in touch and share rituals. Leaders may be participants in the groups of other leaders; participants may participate in as many groups as they wish; and participants may become leaders of their own groups.

If and when it is needed, a National CASPER Registry can be maintained on the Co-Intelligence Institute web site. It could include listings of local CASPER leaders in various locations and provide a database of rituals/practices that any groups can work with. (Lists of possible rituals and exercises constitute modular units from which a would-be leader can pull together a unique set of activities which particularly interest him or her.) In the meantime, any CASPER community can arrange its own ways to share information and options.

I like to imagine dozens of CASPER communities (20-100 people each?) in different parts of the state/country/world coming into being and disappearing on a relatively self-organized basis, simply because various people wanted to put CASPER groups together and other people wanted to participate in them, while still other people would probably lose interest. I am interested in creating the data bases of rituals and exercises and the means of connecting prospective leaders and participants, that would enable this vision to be realized.



I'll lead the first pilot CASPER group of 8 people (2 alternates). It will have ten sessions, which I'd like to do weekly, if I can find 10 people willing to commit to that. It could also be bi-weekly. (If there's too many people for one group, maybe we can start two. They could be on different schedules...)

The purpose of this CASPER series is to explore and develop skills and awareness that may prove useful in co-creating powerful circles that generate a deep sense of shared Presence. Its ten sessions will be the following:


SESSION 1) Introductions, orientation, setting of intention and commitment, Q&A.


SESSION 2) Candle-centered silence -- into which occasional voices come.

We will sit silently in a circle with a candle in the middle. We will not go around the circle to speak; it will be more like a Quaker meeting. If anyone feels MOVED to speak from their heart or center or "place of deep caring" (etc.) they can do so in that moment, after which the silence will descend again among us. The silence has priority over any conversation: It is perfectly fine to have no one say anything the whole time, or to have a number of people speak now and then in the silence. If the leader judges there is too much talking, he will ring a chime to bring the silence to the fore once again.


SESSION 3) Facing each other from the four directions (with spanning attention).

Phase I: To start with, we'll pair up and sit facing each other -- "just being there and doing nothing but being there" for 5 minutes. Then we'll have a 5 minute break to individually reflect on what happened and write down journal notes. Then we'll do the same for 10 minutes, followed by a 5 minute journal break. Then there will be 5-10 minutes for Q&A and sharing.

Phase 2: Next we'll sit in chairs facing each other in two tight circles of four, with one person in each of the four directions, knees not quite touching. We'll do that for five minutes, ten minutes and then 15-30 minutes, each time followed by a 5 minute journal break. (The length of the last sitting will depend on how much time we have. We may try two ending times, with the second being for those who are more ambitious. This experience can be intense, in both beautiful and difficult ways.)

Then we'll talk a bit about what it was like.

Except for the Q&A/sharing periods and occasional instructions from the leader, the entire process will be silent. While we are facing each other, we will say and do nothing, only be with each other. We will do our best to be still, not fidgeting, responding, trying to communicate with facial expressions or ESP or doing anything else other than being there, sitting facing each other. Those who want a real challenge can even try not blinking.

Occasionally the leader may remind participants to span their attention -- particularly in the second half of the exercise, to attend to the two people who are sitting to their right and left, even as they look at the person in front of them.


SESSION 4) Coached body/context mindfulness

We will start with a brief guided meditation to tune us into our bodies and surroundings. Then we will have an ordinary conversation, on whatever subjects happen to come up. At any point the leader or any participant may interrupt the conversation to alert us to some part of our bodies, our consciousness or our context -- and, after a pause to attend to that, the conversation can continue. In particular, people are encouraged to be aware (or articulate their awareness) of their own voice, breath, body, etc., AS THEY ARE TALKING. Participants are encouraged at any time to inject into the conversation a statement of what they are thinking, feeling, experiencing, at a more nuanced, non-obvious level than usual. Nothing need be done with these statements by others, although they may wish to attend to similar things in their own experience. The conversation can (but need not) be ABOUT such things; it can try to follow a particular subject, although this can be difficult with all the "interruptions." In any case, in this exercise the conversation is always subsidiary to body/ experience/ context awareness which ideally we'll all be practicing at every moment (good luck to us!!).


SESSION 5) Deep Listening Circle

We will start with a brief guided meditation to tune us into our bodies and surroundings. We will sit in a circle "listening" to our environment, our inner selves, Spirit, our voices, each other, the group vibes, etc., as we pass a crystal around and whoever has the crystal can speak, making an effort never to break the constant listening that they and others are doing. Above all, there is no rush in this circle. All speaking is done "from the heart" -- whatever deepest place we can reach in the moment we have the crystal. If at any point during our turn we don't feel we're at a very deep place, we are encouraged to remain silent rather than speak from a shallow place. At any time, the leader may direct an individual's or the group's attention to a deeper or more conscious place, using a question, comment or chime.


SESSION 6) Total Inquiry -- dialogue consisting only of questions

With silence as our starting point and background (default), we talk about any topic that comes up, but can only ask questions, not make statements. Participants are encouraged to make notes for later discussion, regarding things they notice about questions during the exercise. Many different types of questions will surface, including statements masquerading as questions, rhetorical questions, open-ended questions, questions that simply direct attention, questions that modify, overlap, or focus on some portion of another question, or link the issues of a previous question to another area of inquiry, etc. One thing we'll definitely explore is what relationship we can have to questions other than answering them.


SESSION 7) Saying what's happening to us as a group

Once this exercise starts -- with silence as our starting point and background (default) -- the only communications permitted are sentences beginning with
"I see..."
"I hear..."
"I sense..."
"I believe..."
and ending with a statement about "we" or "us" or "the group." Clarifying statements can follow, but only a few sentences at most.

"I sense us waiting for something special to happen here."
"I hear us talking about intellectual things. I'm wondering if we aren't ready to go to a heart place."
"I believe there is some fear in the room. I'm feeling it myself, but I'm suspecting it isn't just me."
"I hear birds outside, and the sound surrounding us."

The purpose of this ritual is (a) to see what happens if we sustain present-time group-level awareness for a couple of hours, and (b) to increase our sensitivity to the many varieties of group-related phenomena that can be attended to.


SESSION 8) E-prime

We will carry on whatever conversation seems to happen, but we'll do it with no "to be" verbs -- is, was, be, am, are, were. Those who use this discipline call it E-prime, a term which connotes to me "a more primal variant of English." Invented by General Semantics founder Alfred Korzybski, E-prime has a small but passionate following. We can expect certain phenomena to arise in our initial attempts to use E-prime, including:
-- hightened consciousness of our words -- before and AS we say them
-- a lot of humorous, frustrating, instructive communication blocks
-- finding ourselves forced into our own experience of life, into the real connections between things and into more detailed articulations -- all because we can no longer make oversimplified abstract God-like declarations (like "such and such IS this or that"). For example: Since I can't say "This is a great day!" I have to come up with "I like this day" or "I found myself really engaging in life today" or "This weather makes me feel really good."

(NOTE: I just used E-prime to describe this session. Interesting exercise. You might want to try it.)


SESSION 9) Crystal Wisdom Circle and integration of what we've done

We'll start with 15 minutes of "facing each other from the four directions" (session 3). We'll then sit in a circle with a candle in the middle (session 2) and, after a guided meditation to tune us into our bodies and surroundings (session 4) and a short briefing, we'll await the beginning of a candle-centered listening circle (session 5). To start this circle, we will imagine the crystal has the power to embody and channel whatever wisdom or Spirit is among us. Once the crystal starts going around the circle, there will be no *expectation* that any of us will say anything. When I have the crystal I will center into it, into myself and into the group space/spirit (in whatever way feels right for me) and see if anything wants to come through my heart/voice in this moment. I won't say something I thought of earlier, unless it is so alive in me NOW that IT WANTS TO BE SAID (rather than ME wanting to say it).

A major difference between this session and session 5 is that we are seeing what happens when we sense the focus of wisdom outside of ourselves (in this case, in the crystal). Does that assumptions help us be still, present and receptive? Does it create a different relationship between ourselves and what we end up saying (and our silence)? Hopefully what we've learned about silence, listening, spanning attention (session 3), inquiry (session 6), group-level sensitivity (session 7) and articulating real experience (session 8) will inform our efforts to be simply and totally present (whether or not we have the crystal), but we're not going to be paying specific group attention to any of those forms in this session. We'll just try to sense deeply and authentically. Anyone at any time may ring the chime, to call themselves and/or everyone else into mindfulness.


SESSION 10) Reflection on the series and on what we each/all might do next.



Sessions will go from 6:30 pm - 9:00 pm. There will be no check-ins (although there will be time to socialize afterwards for anyone who wishes to stay). Every session will start on time with silence until everyone arrives (but not longer than 15 minutes). Sessions 1 and 10 will then simply proceed with their agendas. In sessions 2-9 the initial silence will be followed by a 5-20 minute briefing and Q&A so everyone is oriented to the exercise we're about to do. Then there will be 90-120 minutes of doing the exercise. The meeting will close with about 1/2 hour of reflection by the whole group. Note-taking by participants during the exercises is encouraged (except DURING the Session 3 "being there" exercises), to enrich the reflection at the end.

This series of ten sessions will cost $10-$200 sliding scale. Each participant gets to decide what is right for them. Alternates pay $1-20 per session they participate in. (Although I expect to love every minute of this series, I have to justify to myself spending the time away from my other work to do this. If you'd like to participate but don't want to pay, or can't, let's talk.

Please let me know
a) if you would like to participate -- and whether full time or as an alternate
b) whether you favor weekly or biweekly sessions.
c) which evenings are possible for you, and when would be the best starting dates (plus any weeks you'd need to skip because of earlier commitments)
d) if you'd like to talk with me about starting your own CASPER group or like to help get them going out in the world. I have a number of other rituals that could be tried, that I plan to do in later groups, but you could do any of them (or those above) in your own group....

Tom Atlee