Of Pods, Squads, Crews & Gangs: Small Group Experiments In Radical Belonging
It's my sneaking suspicion that despite all our shiny new communications technology there remains a deep streak of loneliness hidden inside almost all of us.
The mystic psychologist Carl Jung suggested that such sensations do ‘not come from having no people about one, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself, or from holding certain views which others find inadmissible.’ In other words this kind of loneliness arises from feeling not fully seen, held, celebrated or understood by the people in the our life.
These are the kind of feelings that keep many of us steadfastly glued to social media in an attempt to fill our inner void with the mostly empty calories of dopamine laced digital connection. And such loneliness is compounded by the fact that we tend not to speak of it all that often as it's usually wrapped up in layers of pernicious shame. As the father of Humanistic Psychology Carl Rogers put it 'all of us are pretty good at carrying the secret of our own loneliness'. But after studying and writing about this phenomena for a number of years I’m now fairly confident in proclaiming that those of us who harbour such feelings are far from alone. In fact I’d go as far to suggest that we are having the archetypal 21st century human experience.
Now to be fair a portion of this deep seated loneliness can likely be chalked up to the fact that at the end of day despite our profound interconnectedness we tend to experience ourselves as discrete biological organisms. Apparent individuals who are left to communicate the full majesty of our unique subjective experience largely through the medium of constricted mouth sounds and tensed facial muscles. This means that despite our most fervent and poetic attempts to convey the truth of exactly what it’s like to be ‘us’, we may never truly be able to do so. I find this to be one of the more quietly tragic aspects of the human condition. But perhaps we might think of it as the admission price for having the experience of being sovereign and autonomous creatures.
There is some good news however. As beyond this portion of ‘universally baked in existential loneliness’ I’d suggest that the lions share of our modern day alienation can be directly attributed to the way we’ve structured our late stage capitalist societies. And that’s something we all have agency in changing. The reason I’m so sure of this is that I’ve seen first hand what happens to people when they are consistently watered with the nourishment of true belonging. They come alive like flowers in the spring and often realise for the first time just how much they were lacking the full spectrum of communal nourishment that we all long for as social animals. The fact that our societies can still function with such a deficit of a meaningful sense of belonging illustrates our impressive ability to adapt to our surroundings, it also highlights how our resilience can ultimately cause harm by allowing us to acclimatise to social conditions that fall well short of what we require to thrive.
Thankfully there’s a new kind of social unit emerging which may play a crucial role in helping us to overcome this mostly silent epidemic of loneliness and disconnection. It’s already showing up in a number of different flavours but the four versions I’ve been tracking most closely include Pods, Squads, Crews and Digital Gangs. And while each one has it’s own distinct DNA I’d suggest they’re all similar enough be considered a part of what I’ve come to think of as The Small Group Movement. It’s a nascent subculture that is experimenting with news ways of relating, working, friend-ing and creating culture together.
This article explores why such social constellations might be forming and what makes them different from the long lineage of Small Groups that came before them. It also examines both the potential benefits and pitfalls of joining a Small Group and explores why they might one day be widely embraced by the culture at large.
But first let’s start with a general description of what these Small Groups look like:
They are made up of between 3-12 people, but 3-5 tends to be the sweet spot.
Group members communicate and collaborate with each other either in person or online.
They can be either short or long term experiences ranging from between a few weeks to going on indefinitely.
They can take the form of peer to peer mentoring groups, co-therapy groups, accountability groups, masterminds, project teams, co-op’s, study groups or just good old fashioned hang outs. Often they are a unique blend of all of these different formats.
They are geared towards helping each person in the group grow, kick ass and have as much fun as possible along the way.
They are containers for cultivating brilliant vibes together.
They are contexts of deep trust between people who share a high alignment of values.
Over the much longer term they have the potential to develop into constellations of chosen kin.
When first encountering the notion of such groups it can be tricky to discern exactly what’s so special about them. After all upon first glance they are just small collections of people coming together to share in mutually supportive experiences. But under the surface there is a much more complex dynamic at play as it’s not so much the kinds of activities that define the uniqueness of these groups but rather the qualities of friendship that such relational containers allow to develop.
In this sense what makes Pods, Squads, Crews and Digital Gangs different from other groups is that first and foremost they are experiments in a kind of radical belonging that explicitly encourages the cultivation of new kinds of culture. They might be thought of as forms of social permaculture or as an example of what Richard Bartlett has aptly described as Microsolidarity.
Here are some of the more common session formats that Small Groups usually employ.
The Small Group Lineage
It's interesting to note that each of the Small Groups profiled in this piece (Pods, Squads, Crews & Digital Gangs) were originally prototyped by Millennials (those born between 1980-1995) and as such reflect the values of a generation that has come of age in an era of peak alienation. But obviously we Millennials are by no means the first generation to reimagine the possibilities of Small Group cohesion. We draw from a long lineage of salons, clubs and coteries that have been pushing the boundaries of human connectedness for thousands of years.
I believe that much of the effort of this lineage has been an (often unconscious) attempt to rekindle the kind of deep tribal cohesion we experienced for time immemorial as nomadic hunter gatherers. And it's taken many notable forms in a rich tradition that has informed the Pods, Squads, Crews and Gangs of today.
What’s Different This Time
I believe that what makes the current wave of Small Groups (Pods, Squads, Crews and Gangs) unique is that they’ve emerged within the context of late stage capitalism after forty years of Neoliberal narrative dominance. This means that the Millennials facilitating these Small Group experiences have been shaped by a number of defining factors, including:
That we’ve grown up in an era of hyper-individuality where according to a number of studies feelings of alienation are at an all time high and feelings of belonging are at an all time low.
That as children of the baby boomers many of us have been steeped in the undercurrents of humanistic psychology that have been steadily permeating the culture since the late 1960’s.
That we straddle a pivotal moment in history being old enough to remember a time before the internet but also native enough to online culture to recognise and appreciate the whole new world of human interaction that the internet is only just beginning to open up. Many of us spent much of our late adolescence and early adulthood socialising online and now have a whole new suite of digital technologies (Discord Servers, DAO’s, Social Media, Group chats, Video Calls & very soon immersive VR) at our disposal.
That many of us are now at least one or two generations away from having experienced a deeply communal religious context. And whether we realise it or not I’d suggest we’re often looking to fill a congregation or sangha shaped hole in our collective hearts.
What’s Drawing Us In
I propose that many of us are drawn to these novel kinds of Small Group experience because we long for new kinds of friendship that transcend the categories of relationship currently on offer to us. We’re enticed and intrigued by the notion of a close group of people that are keen and eager to collectively experiment with:
Going psychologically deeper than the bounds and informalities of modern friendship tend to allow for.
Exchanging and sharing in therapy and coaching that is outside the confines and structures of a paid professional setting (not to suggest this would replace more traditional therapeutic contexts but instead augment and supplement them).
Forging friendships in the communal fire of directed focus as we leverage our shared camaraderie towards personal growth.
Creating co-working livelihood groups that are as much about resonant relationship as they are about productivity and profit.
Reimagining traditional kin bonds and the idea of cohering into extended non-genetic chosen families.
Of Pods, Squads, Crews & Gangs: A Small Group Taxonomy
Now that we have a broad overview of what Small Grouping is all about let’s take a closer look at the specifics of Pods, Squads, Crews and Gangs all of which have come into being over the last five or six years. It’s worth noting that each of the originators (myself included) were so impacted by their initial Small Group experience that they then took the time to write about it in the hope of encouraging others towards similar experiments as well. In other words Small Grouping appears to have had a major impact on all of our lives.
Dreamt Up By
Sam Hart, Toby Shorin, Laura Lotti
Sam, Toby & Laura are independent researchers who are all part of an organisation called Other Internet. They are on the cutting edge of internet culture and deeply involved with the world of Web3 (ie blockchains, cryptocurrencies, tokens and DAO’s). Their Small Group experience initially blossomed out of a humble group chat and their Squad theory is articulate, fun, funky, heartfelt and ‘in the know’. It’s a little bit sassy and laden with digital terminology. They are the highly networked funky internet culture pioneers of the Small Group scene.
In Their Own Words
Squads = ‘Group Boundary - Persistent Comms - Squad Vibe - Small Group Size - Co-Presence’
‘Today people are born as individuals, and have to find their squad.’ (Paraphrasing K-HOLE)
‘Squad culture is the antithesis of neoliberal individualism’.
‘SQUAD WEALTH is when the Discord is popping off and it brings you more joy than a 70-hour-week hustle ever could.’
‘Whether housemates or friends sharing a Discord group, squads allow social currency and financial capital to inter-convert, creating opportunities and group resiliency that would have been impossible to achieve alone.’
Dreamt Up By
Richard Bartlett (with added inspiration from Natalia Lombardo).
Richard has lots of experience with the process of decentralisation as well as pioneering novel forms of small group coordination. He has a background with the co-op Loomio and has been at the forefront of new forms of organising and working together for over a decade. This ethos shines through in his concept of Microsolidarity which is the broader umbrella housing his theory of Crews. He was deeply impacted by the Occupy movement and his notion of Crewing reflects these principles of egalitarianism and togetherness. Along side some his peers from Enspiral he’s one of the OG social mavericks of the Small Group scene, constantly iterating and amassing a public library of effective tools and techniques for being able to move towards doing more meaningful work with your friends.
In Their Own Words
‘Because we’re infected with individualism, we lack the techniques, behaviours, language, beliefs, ideas, tools, and nuanced values required to thrive in multiplicity.’
‘[Crews are a] long-term set of relationships with singular purpose, like a co-op, shared house, or affinity group. The size is important, because it is small enough to stay highly coordinated with minimal explicit rules & roles, and large enough that your enhanced impact is worth the cost of collaborating.’
‘A good crew is not only super efficient. It can also be a potent site for personal development.’
Dreamt Up By
Daniel Kazandjian & Peter Limberg
Peter and Daniel both have a strong connection to Stoicism and are in the process of developing and prototyping their own concept of a Digital Gang as means of moving towards what they think of as friendships of virtue. They are the practical philosophers of the Small Group Scene, the noble and candid Stoic Hustlers who like to make use of accountability, mental models, discipline and daemonic energy to forge new kinds of relational container.
In Their Own Words
‘The place where philosophical fellowships and mastermind groups are combined, trojan horsing friendships of virtue to the wider culture.’
‘[Friendships of Virtue] is Aristotle’s term I like to use to describe friendships in which you truly want your friend to be better and wiser. In these kinds of relationships you do not instrumentalize your friend towards some benefit, nor do you use each other for some mutual pleasure. No. These friendships are about virtue.’
‘We are also figuring out how to be digitally effective together, encouraging the use of “privacy arts”’.
‘The other thing we want digital gangs to help with is getting into the right relationship with our second selves (internet personas)’.
Dreamt Up By
Me. And also concurrently (but without knowledge of each other) at around the same time in a slightly different way by some of the folks from Enspiral.
I was deeply involved with a collective of around two hundred people when I had the idea to start forming pods. The intention was to take our communal bonds to the next level by going through an intensive nine month process of peer to peer counselling, mentorship, shadow work and authentic relating. Our focus was on expressing the parts of ourselves that are usually left unseen, repressed or hidden away. My friends and I that oversaw this process are the apprentice shadow workers and guerrilla depth psychologists of the Small Group scene.
In My Own Words
‘If it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes a Pod to forge a fully fledged adult.’
‘Pods are where the bow hits the string, they are the forefront of our collective exploration into new kinds of regenerative social culture. They’re a place to bring all the parts of ourselves and practice being held in our entirety.’
‘If we’re living in an age of hyper individuality then perhaps the most revolutionary act available to us is to form small pockets of radical belonging.’
While Pods, Squads, Crews and Gangs share many similarities there are also some subtle distinctions between each one of them. As is illustrated above they're each a little different in terms of their focus on growth and tangible outcomes. In fact they are each unique enough that I could see myself simultaneously being part of a Pod (Sharing & Shadow Work), Squad/Crew (Co-Creating) & Digital Gang (Accountability).
However despite these minor distinctions they are all comprised of some balance of what I’ve come to think of as The Six Elements Of Podding.
(ie. Circling, Altered States)
This is a quality of interaction that is often experienced without words although certain kinds of practices like Circling and various Authentic Relating exercises can help to guide a group into this state through the use of specific forms of highly conscious dialogue. It might also involve just peacefully relaxing together and often arises in the wake of group experiences intended to elicit altered states of consciousness like sauna, ice baths, meditation, breath work, drumming and psychedelics. Cuddling is another pathway towards Being. As is sitting around a fire late at night or quietly working on building, crafting, gardening or farming together.
(ie. Dance Events, Open Mics, Festivities, Adventure)
This is the element of fun. It can involve dancing, sharing food, playing games, making music, sports, holding Open Mics and celebrating each others creativity. It might involve feasting together, going to festivals or embarking on adventures to new places or events.
(ie. Projects, Co-Ops, Events, DAO’s)
This involves the group combining its energies and skills to create something together. It could be any kind of project, co-op, event or DAO. It could also be a wholly artistic project and it may or may not involve generating some kind of income together.
(ie. Discipline Groups, Goal Setting)
This is the practice of inviting one another to hold us accountable to new habits we are attempting to form and goals that we are committed to moving towards. It can take the form of short term discipline building groups and semi regular goal setting sessions. It can also show up more informally as a general invitation to have others speak up if they see us acting in potentially harmful ways for ourselves and others at which point it can quickly begin to overlap with the Shadow Work element.
(ie. P2P Counselling, Origins Stories)
This includes talking about what’s going on in your inner and outer world. It may also look like having space held for you while you make sense of where you’re at. It can also involve sharing parts of your history through narrative practices like distilling and conveying your Origins Story (ie. telling your life story in 12 photos or less).
(ie. Encounter Groups, Podding)
This involves helping each other to actively seek out and become more aware of our blindspots and shadow sides. It can take the form of Encounter groups and carefully focussed and facilitated sharing circles. This is definitely the most volatile of each of the elements but also potentially one of the most transformative.
And in my experience if you successfully combine together an even balance of all Six Elements you can end up generating a sense of what I've come to think of as...
Radical Belonging = The experience of feeling deeply understood, held, celebrated, connected, supported and lovingly challenged all in equal measure.
The Convergence Hypothesis
So while they each of Small Groups listed above may look and feel subtly different to begin with it's my sense that they are all potential pathways towards Radical Belonging and that what really differentiates each one is essentially just their starting point.
Crews and Squads tend to begin prioritising Co-Creation. Digital Gangs tend to start out prioritising Accountability. And Pods often start out prioritising Sharing and Shadow Work. But it's my hypothesis that if each of these types of Small Group were left to run long enough they would all likely converge upon some kind of synthesis of all of the Six Elements.
However that being said I also believe there will always be room for more Specialised Small Groups that remain highly focused on one particular element for their entire life cycle as opposed to the more Full Spectrum Small Groups that actively attempt to balance all six.
I’m largely basing this hypothesis on the ‘as above so below’ principle having observed what seemed to be a similar dynamic play out one level up at the community scale. This is the domain of groups between 20 and 200, what I call Collectives and Richard Bartlett calls Congregations.
Over a number of years I observed Enspiral (a Congregation based in Wellington but with members all over the world) appear to explicitly add in more elements of Being, Sharing and Enjoyment into their DNA after starting out with what appeared to be a strong focus on Co-creation. Where as in contrast to that the Collective I was a part of (Dok Rak) began with a bigger focus on Enjoyment and Being before slowly adding in more elements of Co-Creation, Sharing & Shadow Work. It's my sense that a similar sequential addition and ultimate balancing out of all six elements would also play out over time on the Small Group scale.
If I was to posit an ideal order for establishing a more Full Spectrum Small Group or Community experience I’d likely suggest starting out with some Enjoyment, before adding in elements of Being and Sharing, then layering in some Accountability and Shadow work before icing the cake with a healthy dose of ongoing Co-creation. That being said there are of course many different ways to arrive at a shared sense of radical belonging and the most suitable pathway will always depend on the particular cultural context and people involved.
Once Upon A Pod: My Experience
I’ve been consistently Small Grouping in different constellations for over five years now and it’s been one of the most intensely challenging and heart achingly beautiful experiences of my life.
I was initially drawn towards the notion of the Small Group because I longed for a more comprehensive and multifaceted experience of the friends in my life. I'd begun to observe everyone in my social circle feeling endlessly time poor and over committed with their work, familial obligations, romantic partnerships and whatever hobbies they could cram in on the side. There just didn't seem to be much room for cultivating increasingly meaningful friendships and this was even before everyone started pouring most of their energy and attention into raising kids. We'd often all have to book each other in at least two weeks in advance and by then much of the spontaneity and flow of meeting up had evaporated. It was around that time that I began to have a sense that the whole institution of modern day friendship could do with some upgrading.
After moving to South East Asia and connecting in with the community there I experienced a social context where people appeared to have considerably more time and availability. We'd all meet up much more regularly and on shorter notice and this tended to increase the fidelity of our friendships.
But despite having many more opportunities to hang out I realised that I was still longing for a deeper experience of those I was close to. I felt a longing to really know the people around me and for them to know me, to get under the skin and behind the public persona of those I called friends. So one sunny morning I had the bright idea to form a Pod and so began a whole new chapter of my life.
Now starting a Pod is a deceptively simple undertaking, all you need to do is round up a few friends and start regularly meeting up to share what’s going in your inner world. That’s all there is to it. The tricky part is consistently cultivating an open and honest exchange without continually rubbing each other up the wrong way or overwhelming one another with too many heavy emotions. The idea is to show up for each other in ways that aren’t commonly available in our society today. To be present, attentive, compassionate, patient, direct, honest and most of all real with each other.
It’s been my experience that if you fully commit to this process there’s a high likelihood you’ll discover truths about yourself, the people close to you and the state of the modern psyche that will change and transform you. Some of these insights may be difficult to swallow and may lead to significant adjustments in how you view the world and your place within it. And while some of these revelations can be a lot to process I've found that if you can stay the course there’s a good chance you’ll be rewarded with a quality of human connection not often experienced in the modern world.
However Small Grouping is not always smooth sailing. In fact the first Pod I formed was a wonderful disaster. It included fourteen people and went for nine months before dramatically unravelling in the hours leading up to our final session. We made all the mistakes. The group was too large, the expectations weren’t as clear as they could have been, people came in and out of the process at different times and we had a very broad spectrum of Small Group experience within the group.
We also had a number of couples of in the Pod and one of them had an intense break up halfway through the process which brought up a lot of shadow material within the group. We simply weren’t equipped for that level of intensity and the fault lines that had formed eventually cracked wide open in a dramatic dissolution.
That being said in many ways it was also a huge success in that it delivered much of what I'd been searching for. I had a truly multidimensional social experience of myself and others and managed to get behind the masks and emotional armour that many of us didn't even realise we were wearing.
The Podding process revealed to me that what I’d been longing for was to sit with people in my community in the shared recognition of our existential angst, our conflicted natures and our unique histories of developmental trauma. And from that place of compassionate honesty begin to get into new rhythms of relationship together that would continually encourage us to cultivate habits and practices that reinforced our sense of self love, self acceptance and self esteem.
In amidst all the giggles, tears, profound insights and awkward silences we were provided an amazing opportunity to marvel at both the intensely complex and profoundly simple beauty inherent in human relationship. We were afforded the chance to lovingly chuckle at ourselves as we haphazardly attempted to share the deepest aspects of our being. And by the end of the process it felt like we’d begun traversing the rocky beginnings of a pathway that would one day lead us to an incredibly meaningful collective experience. We just needed to pack the right equipment next time around and travel in smaller groups.
In the years that followed as I cycled through a number different podding constellations it became clearer and clearer that I was seeking a Small group Experience that was:
More structured than most friendship groups.
More fluid and values aligned than most genetic families.
More egalitarian and informal than most group therapy sessions.
More relationship focused than most project teams or business settings.
More multidimensional than most Mastermind groups
Essentially I was looking for what I'd come to think of as Pod Mates.
Mixing Friendships, Therapy & Money: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
So while I'd gotten much clearer on what I was seeking from The Small Group Experience I'd also discovered a number of different ways that it could all go pear shaped.
This process continually reminded me that in much of modern culture it’s common to have a relatively high degree of separation between our friendships, our romances, our jobs, our spiritual experiences and our inner emotional worlds. Many people primarily interact with their friends for fun, their partners for love, their work mates to get stuff done and perhaps a therapist to reveal the more unrefined aspects of themselves.
These divisions can serve us well in helping to keep our social interactions more streamlined, manageable and efficient. It could even be said that in some ways such compartmentalisation is one of the crowning achievements of modern society. But it can also subtly perpetuate a sense of alienation by reducing the likelihood of those close to us ever having a more full and complete experience of the many facets that comprise who we are.
I've found that Small Grouping is one way to reverse this kind of silo effect. But even in carefully managed contexts it's not without its risks. After all we’re talking about mixing elements of friendship, psychological depth work, spirituality and potentially also income generation.
So in answer to the question what could possibly go wrong?
To be perfectly honest, quite a lot. At least until many of us have become more familiar and skilled in relating in these new kinds of ways. Here are some of the more common risks and downsides I’ve identified and experienced in various Small Grouping contexts so far:
Putting too much pressure on a perfectly good friendship and thus bending it out of shape. ie. Inviting too much emotional authenticity and expression into a relationship before the time is ripe.
Breaching each others trust. This can often occur after someone has opened up in a co-counselling context about a deeply personal issue they are facing only to discover that some one else in the group has broken their vow of confidentiality and spoken of it to another person (their romantic partner for example).
Bringing your shared money trauma (insecurities and inconsistencies around money) into an otherwise fantastically finance free friendship field and thus changing things for the worse.
Having to hold people accountable to something they have committed to but haven't followed through on. Often in friendship dynamics we cut others quite a lot of slack, but in Small Group contexts there can be a higher bar of commitment and accountability which if enforced can create tensions within the group. Conversely if such commitments are simply ignored and then never spoken of disillusionment and disappointment can arise.
Basically imagine any and all of the strange dynamics that can occur between you and your work colleagues, therapists and coaches and then overlay them on top of the context of a friendship. These kind of Small Group experiences tend to shine a light on the fact that most of us don’t have much practice actually leaning into and resolving conflict with our friends and close kin, we often just sweep things under the rug and simply move on.
But like with most risky endeavours if your Small Group experience goes well the upside can be enormous. Some of the more precious outcomes include:
A felt sense of of belonging you might not have known was possible.
A huge infusion of philia (an ancient Greek word for the love of friends) and camaraderie into your life often leading to whole new kinds and qualities of friendship.
The generation of new income streams shared with people you care about through doing work that is deeply meaningful to you.
A profound experience of feeling heard and seen by those close to you thereby allowing you to discover and integrate more parts of yourself and accelerate your journey of individuation and personal growth.
Increased levels of self discipline, accountability and focus helping you more steadily progress towards the life and world you wish to inhabit.
Is It Worth The Risk?
Personally I believe it is and feel that if we want to avoid the hyper-alienated distance all too common in highly digitalised capitalist societies then at some point we’re all going to have to lean into the wisdom these kinds of Small Group experiences can provide. But that being said I have my doubts as to whether large parts of the wider culture (as well as particular parts of myself) are actually ready to start mainlining Small Group levels of realness, authenticity and collaboration.
So perhaps at this point in our trajectory it’s best to keep such Small Group experiences as strictly contained practices that can be more thoroughly beta tested before they are widely integrated into the culture at large. Kind of like Fight Club where because of how intimate it is you start out doing it with relative strangers (who quickly become much more than that) and don’t speak of it outside of the direct experience. Then once you are more comfortable with the process and risks involved you can start trying it out with friends. After all these are still the early days of this wave of Small Group experimentation and not everyone is willing and able to spend the time and energy that is required to carefully prototype such new kinds of social interaction.
But if you are willing to see it through then setting up a Small Group might radically change your life for the better. Having had first hand experience of the fullness of a well balanced Pod I’m certain it’s something I’ll always want to cycle in and out of despite the many challenges that can arise. Podding has taught me that it’s nearly always worth putting the work in towards fostering more meaningful and enriching relationships with those I'm close to, even if things can get a bit messy along the way.
But that being said I feel there’ll always be a place for more old fashioned friendships that are based solely around having a good time together with largely unspoken lashings of love and affection around the edges. I've personally found these more 'classic friendships' to be incredibly nourishing in their own special way and cherish them deeply.
Kin Buddies: The Small Group Holy Grail
But if you do take the plunge and commit to a series of Small Group experiences then you increase the likelihood of forming a unique kind of relationship I’ve playfully come to think of as the Neotribal Kin Buddy (or just Kin Buddy for short).
Being someone's Kin Buddy involves:
A sense that while in such a relational constellation together both people will show up for each other no matter what.
An openness to an element of confession. In that your Kin Buddy is someone you attempt to share everything with (in a considered way in the right moment) no matter how shameful it feels.
An understanding that the relationship is less a means to an end and more an end in and of itself. In this sense it could be said to be a kind of spiritual practice.
A higher degree of encouragement to (kindly) speak to what feels to be most true, even if it is uncomfortable.
Both people leaning into a degree of shadow work together. This might involve making a ritual out of being extra real with each other every now and again.
Less fear and hesitancy around sharing the full extent of our deepest suffering and anguish. And more of a willingness to (even momentarily) stare into and attempt to have a shared experience of the unique bleakness of one another's inner void.
A sense that you would put the others well-being at least equal to your own.
The ability to blend together the qualities of being a lover, a close friend and a therapist without needing to bring in any overt elements of sexuality.
A kind of shared love that has the least amount of conditions as possible.
An ongoing attempt to identify where both people might be running subtle me-first (or finite) games within the relationship.
In the Celtic tradition this kind of bond is known as anam ara. As the poet John Donahue writes in his book Anam Cara ‘Anam is the Gaelic word for soul; ara is the word for friend. So anam ara means soul friend. The anam ara was a person to whom you could reveal the hidden intimacies of your life. This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging. When you had an anam ara, your friendship cut across all convention and category. You were joined in an ancient and eternal way with the friend of your soul...a loved one who awakens your life in order to free the wild possibilities within you.’ (excerpted from the Book Anam Cara by John O’Donohue).
Peter Limberg and Daniel Kazandjian (by way of Aristotle) refer to a similar kind of relationship as Friendships Of Virtue. Which are in contrast to Friendships of Utility and Friendships of Pleasure. In Answers For Aristotle Massimo Piglucci explains ‘Aristotle’s opinion was that friends hold a mirror up to each other. And through that mirror they can see each other in ways that would not otherwise be accessible to them, and it is this (reciprocal) mirroring that helps them improve themselves as persons.'
But despite the deep wisdom Aristotle offers us here if I had to choose just one Patron Philosopher Of Small Grouping it would be none other than his Grecian compatriot Epicurus, that pioneering community builder who insisted life was best directed towards subtle pleasures and that refined friendship was chief among these.
Of course it’s possible to reach such altitudes of friendship without the assistance of a Small Group container. But in my experience The Small Group context provides just the right setting for such bonds to germinate and blossom which I believe is one of the major incentives for experimenting with such practices in the first place.
And if you're looking for an online ecosystem to begin dabbling your toes in you need look no further than The Liminal Web.
Small Grouping In The Liminal Web
I recently published an article profiling a network of Metatheorists, Systems Poets and Sensemakers I’ve come to think of as The Liminal Web. Over the last few years many of us in this space have felt a growing sense of having ‘found the others’. And as we continue to cohere around similar ideas, podcasts, thinkers and online forums there can often be a sense of ‘what next?’.
I’d suggest Small Grouping might be one logical next step as there are low barriers to entry, it’s a direct chance to practice what we’ve been preaching, it can be done wholly online and it’s a fun way to Liminally date folks that you may wish to co-create with more fully in the future. It’s also a meaningful way to have a deeper shared experienced than is often available in most online settings where much of the time we tend have our public facing personas fully activated.
The Small Group context invites us to experience the humans behind the ideas and while it's already occurring in various pockets of The Liminal Web I get the sense there is room for much more experimentation. I see it as an opportunity for us to go beyond the discussion of interesting concepts and into the realm of actively creating culture together.
I was recently inspired by Peter and Daniel's work in curating Digital Gangs so in the spirit of experimentation I invited three friends from The Liminal Web to form what we called an Accountability Crew. Essentially we all committed to regularly meditate for four weeks in row and then to routinely post evidence of the sessions as we completed them.
It took minimal energy to set up and participate in but it gave each of us a much more multifaceted experience of each other than we'd had before. We all received glimpses into how the others chose to deal with resistance and learned endearing details about one another's worlds through the stories and photos we shared along the way. It was surprisingly intimate without feeling intrusive and it motivated all of us to stay on track with engraining a new habit. I found it rewarding to experiment with what it means to show up for each other online and bring a kind of disciplined spiritual commitment to the digital sphere.
I can easily imagine thousands of people across The Liminal Web cycling through different constellations of Pods, Squads, Crews and Gangs as they discover new ways of being together and occasionally stumble into new Kin Buddy arrangements and Friendships of Virtue. All the while forming a wider network mycelium that in time may organically mature into a more cohesive movement.
Some other examples of Small Group Experiences I would enjoy having within The Liminal context include:
Inviting four or five others to watch a different lecture from John Vervaeke’s Awakening From The Meaning Crisis series each week and then having some playful and critical discussion around it. In fact my friend Jason Fox curated that exact experience just last year and it led to a powerful blossoming of online communitas and some close and enduring friendships.
Inviting a few others to do a month long experiment in grounding into a practice of embodiment. We might watch Schuyler Browns embodiment sessions from The Stoa, commit to some kind of daily practice and then meet up once a week to discuss how it’s going and keep each other motivated.
Invite three or four others onto a call and play a new game I like to think of ‘Where Do We Disagree’. I often wonder if under the surface of the relatively high alignment of values I appear to share with my Liminal pals there may be huge hidden areas of disagreement that don’t often come to light. I recently hosted a call like this with a few others and it was filled with laughter and ‘Aha’ moments. Pro tip - Aliens, transgender rights and notions of reincarnation are all fun and potentially spicy topics to explore.
There are so many writers in The Liminal space another idea might be to gather a small group together giving each person some time to explain where they are at in the process of finding their voice and flow as a writer. If everyone was feeling courageous the group could also lovingly analyse each others work and offer up some constructive criticism.
A slightly more edgy experience that can also be very generative is what I like to think of as the ‘Honest First Impressions Game’. This involves gathering together a few Liminal friends you already have some sense of trust with and then taking turns to reveal what your honest first impressions of each other were. It can be hugely surprising, hilarious and kind of intense to discover how you come across to others and how that can differ from your sense of self.
Starting a coaching and counselling guild or Co-Op with three or four other therapists and coaches, pooling together a portion of our funds, cultivating a sense of community with our combined client bases and actively assisting each other to grow and develop as practitioners.
And then of course there’s always the classic option of gathering together three or four friends and holding space for one another to unfold and share what’s happening in our worlds whilst also speaking to some of the challenges we’re facing and joys we're experiencing.
In Conclusion: An Invitation To Slow Down & Connect
In the face of so many pressing cultural issues and existential risks Small Grouping invites us to slow down, centre ourselves and cultivate connection at the speed of trust. As a practice it lies somewhere in the sweet spot between the generation of deep platonic intimacy, the ongoing integration of our collective shadow material and a shared commitment to continually improve our lives (aka get meaningful shit done). It's easy to get started with, the potential benefits are huge and it provides us with an opportunity to become much more adept at peer to peer counselling and mentorship.
Which in my opinion makes it one of the more potent responses to The Meta Crisis currently at our disposal.
Like most things worth doing Small Grouping can also be immensely challenging. It periodically compels us to look into the darker aspects of the human condition and invites us to come to terms with our own inner most struggles and desires. In fact it’s quite common for people to simply ‘bounce off’ the process early on and preemptively withdraw from the experience the moment they are faced with parts of themselves that feel overly unsavoury or raw.
But if we can stick with it and ride out these moments of internal turbulence we are often afforded a golden opportunity to discover deeper and deeper layers of our relational conditioning, which tends to go a long way towards helping us change some of our more entrenched habits and behaviours.
I've observed that when people have a series of potent Small Group experiences they tend to be naturally lead to the conclusion that reimagining the way we relate is perhaps one of the most overlooked and yet crucial steps on our system wide journey towards a world more beautiful and kind. It's an insight that tends to go hand in hand with the revelation that 'the only way out is through' and that to sprout more regenerative and curious cultures we first need to rediscover how to hold all the parts of ourselves and each other with unwavering and courageous compassion.
In recent decades it's generally seemed much more rock and roll to ironically check out rather than to sincerely lean in. But nowadays a number of individuals with relatively high cultural capital appear to be experimenting with weaving new threads of virtuous kinship and meaningful connection. I'm heartened to see that forming small pockets of radical belonging is once again becoming edgy and cool.
It’s my hope that all of us are afforded Small Group experiences so nourishing that we are newly empowered to relish our moments of aloneness rather than attempt to distract them away. In this sense perhaps Small Grouping can better prepare us to not only stand together but also to more assuredly stand alone.
Like many of the more nourishing things in life the magic of Small Grouping really needs to be felt firsthand to be truly understood. So while I’ve done my best to offer up a taste of the experience with these words, if you haven’t already soaked in the Small Group Springs I wholeheartedly invite you to take the plunge. You might just find it re-enchants your world.
Small Grouping Mini FAQ
I still don't quite grasp exactly what Small Grouping is, can you boil it down for me into one sentence?
Small Grouping = Friendship + Structured Focus + Intentional Culture Creation + A High Degree Of Realness.
Wait a minute.. Aren’t you just talking about families? Isn’t my family a Small Group or Pod?
If your family already feels like a Small Group then that’s great as ideally that’s what we’ll all be able to experience one day. But for many people it’s only possible (or at least much more feasible) to explore these new kinds of relational contexts with a group of chosen peers outside of a familial context. It’s also usually much easier to run Small Group experiments (and make mistakes) with people who you aren’t obliged to spend holidays with and stay in touch with for ever. I would suggest that for most people experiencing Pod level openness and depth in a family setting is a very high level practice.
Can these be wholly digital experiences?
Yes absolutely. They can be entirely digital, wholly in person or a hybrid of the two.
How do you choose the right people to form a Small Group with?
Obviously the criteria will differ a little depending on the type of Small Group experience you're aiming for. But I would generally suggest looking for a group of people that are as evenly balanced as possible in terms of their experience (or level of development in the practice at hand) and their level of commitment to the process.
For more therapeutic style Small Groups I might also suggest matching up with people as close together on the Tri-Spectra typology as possible. As while not strictly necessary in my experience doing so tends to allow for greater levels of trust and shared understanding to emerge over time. Which can reduce the risk of fall outs in key moments of tension. However that being if you do end up forming a highly cohesive Small Group with a wide spectrum of world views it can be uniquely satisfying and enriching experience.
Doesn’t all that realness and authenticity sap the fun of out the relationships?
It can do if you continually dwell too long in periods of shadow work together. But in my experience if you carefully dip in and out of such processes it can often result in much richer relationships that then provide ample opportunity for laughter and fun to arise. Small Group contexts also tend to invite us into deeper levels of shared trust, and that kind of trust can open up whole new avenues of friendship and collaboration.
Is it a good idea to Pod with a lover?
I’ve Podded with and without lovers and they both have their pro’s and cons. However I’ve arrived at the conclusion that it’s a better idea to wait until both people have individual experience with Small Grouping before deciding to try it together as a couple.
Ok I’m keen. How do I get started?
Step 1 - Decide what kind of Small Group experience you want to have (Pod, Squad, Crew, Gang or better yet your own custom version) and set some loose parameters for the process (length of experience, frequency of sessions etc.).
Step 2 - Reach out to others and invite them to join.
Step 3 - Have a preliminary meeting to firm up and collectively agree on the parameters together as a group. It might be wise to capture everyones commitments in writing.
Step 4 - Have the experience over the agreed period of time. Then end things cleanly at the designated date and avoid things dragging on at the end.
Step 5- Hold a kind of reflection and debrief session together.
Step 6 - Take a break. Or not! But it can be nice to have a breather I find.
Step 7 - When it feels right start the process again with the same group or potentially in a new format with new people.
See also this great guide from the Microsolidarity wiki around how to get started.
Who facilitates the sessions? Ideally that task is shared as evenly as possible across different members of the Pod as this tends to create a more egalitarian vibe and also sidesteps the whole 'in it but not of it' effect that can happen when one person is always holding space as well as participating.
However what often happens is that whoever first formed the Small Group tends to start off as a kind of default facilitator until the moment that the group coheres and it feels right for the task to be shared around. I’ve found there is generally always a trade off between the fact that some people in each group will tend to be more effective facilitators and that sharing the role around will increase the sense of inclusion and egalitarianism.
Any Other Tips?
You might like to start out by first committing to a short series of sessions together to avoid being locked into a long run of Small Group experiences with someone you’re not vibing with or that isn’t fully showing up.
I'd generally advise against Small Grouping with your very close friends to begin with, as until you get more used to it the whole process can be a little destabilising to previously established relationships at times.
For me one of the most important aspects of a successful Small Group experience is dissolving things smoothly and cleanly at the designated end time. Or if the intention is to continue on indefinitely then regularly checking in to see if the constellation is still serving everyone. Sometimes momentum can see these processes go on far longer than is perhaps generative.
Keep in mind that like any new skill Small Grouping is going to take time to master. I’ve noticed that most people tend to get the hang of it after a few months of practice.
You might like to try paying particular attention to the ten minutes directly before a Small Group Experience. I've found that if I take that time to centre myself instead of rushing straight from previous activities without a pause then the whole session tends to cohere much more smoothly.
It can be tricky managing the facilitator/participant dichotomy. If you find yourself holding space most of the time it can be worth openly talking with other group members about how best to avoid the trap of feeling subtly distant and somehow removed from others in the Small Group.
The Wider Small Group Scene
Small Grouping seems to be rapidly gaining in popularity. Here's a list of some of the other hubs of Small Group activity that have come across my radar.
Richard Bartlett has put together this collection of resources around Microsolidarity & runs Practice Programs with Natalia Lombardo through The Hum. There is also a Loomio group and now a Discord you can join as well.
Daniel Thorson & Seishen from MAPLE have been experimenting with a new Ecology Of Practices which they discuss in this Stoa talk.
The Beyond Self Discipline course from Daniel Kazandjian and Peter Limberg will be available to the public soon. Peter has written about it here.
A few of the team from Other Internet wrote this great piece about Squad Wealth.
The New Republic Of The Heart Community Of Practice has been on experimenting in this space for the past of couple of years.
The Intentional Society is a network explicitly created to explore communal connection and Small Group experience through video calls.
Emergent Commons is a Mighty Networks community that grew out of The Rebel Wisdom ecosystem and is actively exploring Small Grouping.
Nora Bateson’s Warm Data Labs create contexts which allow for new kinds of group cohesion to emerge around the discussion of complex ideas.
A number of organisations (such as Circling Europe & The Circling Institute) offer training in the practice of Circling including a more recent collaboration between John Vervaeke and Guy Sengstock called Dia-Logos.
Joe Lightfoot is a writer, podcaster and apprentice community weaver. He is the author of A Collective Blooming: The Rise Of The Mutual Aid Community and the host of The Lightfoot Podcast. You can sign up to his newsletter The Lightfoot Letter and find him on Facebook.