What happens if you're a participant in a Tool Fair workshop and a facilitator asks you to walk through a portal and then, simply, "find your place"? Honza shows us what one participant's experience could be like and ends with a discussion about the use of such methods to help participants explore themselves through their interaction with the local environment.
Hello, my name is Kristina and I’d like to share a story with you. In November 2012 I took part in the Tool Fair in Poland. From the beginning I liked it. It was in a great place – an old castle full of history, there was a lovely group of people and the programme for me was very interesting. After the welcome evening and an introductory morning the workshops started. The first I chose was called ‘Find your place’. I liked the description which said: ‘adventurous individual inner and outer journey to the town to find a place, to come back and share a story’ and it was meant for ‘anyone who is ready to leave the rational mind behind and use intuition to be led to their place’. Well, I thought, that looks and sounds interesting, let’s try.
The first part of the workshop was a little confusing. For sure it was not what I expected. We were in a room, didn’t know each other much and the level of concentration seemed quite low. Some people appeared to even struggle with a very basic level of English. The whole introduction made some connections to movies and books like the Matrix, Alice in Wonderland and The Hobbit, about traditional cultures and their rites of passage, mirrors, thresholds and gates and I didn’t get much out of it despite it being somehow interesting and it made me want to know more.
Then we went outside. Honza – facilitator of the workshop - took us to the park behind the castle and showed us a rectangular portal made of ropes between the trees. He told us to go through the portal to the ‘new landscape’, to find our place and to come back. Our intention was to be rather intuitive, not very rational: turn off thoughts, let the place find you, connect to the environment and read the signs. Right, I thought, another new age pseudo-psychological unstructured game for hippies, but I still went through the portal to explore the unknown behind.
Immediately after I made the step through the gate something changed. Surprisingly it worked and the feelings were quite strong. I felt like I was in a new parallel reality, like an explorer discovering inner landscapes, maybe like in a dream or in a fairy tale. Then I remembered the instruction – Find your place. Yes, but how, where is it, how does it look like? Maybe I want to sit somewhere in the sun? Then after a while trying to imagine my ideal place I thought about the intention, which was to be led by intuition and to let the thoughts go. So I just walked slowly through the park and observed my feelings, thoughts, steps, and my breath and opened myself to what will come.
My place was then in a shrub, some low level plant growing freely, it was not in the sun at all. It was dark, wet, quite small and fitting more for an animal, which wants to hide than for a human. But I liked it, because it was my place in that moment and for this situation. Spending some time there, discovering the place, observing my feelings I had and reflecting about the connections with my real life was very interesting and fruitful. I was surprised how many messages I received from the environment and how many symbols made sense to me in that moment and in that place. Lots of memories came out and connected with my previous experiences in a meaningful and complex picture.
Time to go back - return through the portal to this reality again. I almost didn’t want to, I was beginning to enjoy that imaginary realm, but I went through the gate and left the park. We all met back in the seminar room which was arranged in a relaxing way and prepared for sharing. There was ambient music playing, maybe I noticed some incense and in the middle there was a big sheet of paper. First we were drawing the essence of our experience on the paper.
Together we made a mosaic of stories and impressions. Later we were sharing a summary of our stories and the outcomes in pairs and in small groups. Some of the people I shared with had very interesting adventures which were different from mine, but some aspects of it resonated very much with me and opened other levels and meanings. At the end we spoke all together about the activity. Some people came up with inspiring ideas and concepts of how to adapt such an activity, where and when to use it and when not to.
Later in the evening we were sitting around the fire with Honza and other people and we started to speak about the activity again and how we can use it. Here is what I remember:
Yvan: Honza, how was your workshop?
Honza: It was quite difficult in the beginning, because the group didn’t know each other, so it took me a lot of time and energy to build the trust and the atmosphere. Normally I would place such an activity at a moment in the course where the people know each other and are familiar with such methods. But then it went fine.
Martin: Yes, but I liked that it was in the beginning of Tool Fair, because it built strong connections between the workshop participants and for me it worked as an unexpected team building activity.
Yvan: That’s interesting. However, for the start of a course I would use a different instruction. Maybe ‘Why am I here?’ or something similar? To send them with the right question or intention is extremely important. I think it must be clear and specific enough, but with space for imagination and more meanings.
Honza: True. The question changes, but the main frame is always the same – you have to build the energy, explain properly the meaning and prepare the people for the experience. It means to be in the right mood yourself, have confidence for the whole time and work on more than just the verbal level to transfer the deeper meaning. It is very much about the authenticity of the facilitator here than in many other methods, because there is not much else to work with and they go out alone. You have to prepare the mind set properly.
Martin: You’re right. It is not possible just to say ‘go through the portal and find your place’ although it is the only instruction you are giving because you don’t want to influence the experience of the people too much I guess?
Mariia: Once I did something similar during the mid-term meeting of EVS volunteers. We didn’t have a common portal, but they built their own somewhere in the forest. The question for them was ‘what is my direction?’ It worked very well, because many of them were thinking about their future and what will be after EVS.
Martin: To build my own threshold - that’s very nice. I liked the prepared portal from the ropes here, but I thought that we could also use the tunnel under the castle or something which is already there as a natural threshold.
Honza: Of course, it very much depends what kind of group you have and what is around. I also like to build gates from natural materials or adjust existing natural thresholds.
Mariia: I liked very much the storytelling at the end. I think it is an important part of the experience. Many of the things I felt started making sense when I did my drawing and then sharing the story with others made it much stronger.
Yvan: Sometimes we also use the so-called ‘way of council’ for the sharing. It adds another level to the story and to the group. I have a workshop on the way of council tomorrow, you can come and try.
Martin: What do you guys think are the risks of such an activity?
Mariia: I guess the facilitator has to be really clear, authentic and strong. Of course the gate works as such, but to prepare the people in a good way is essential for me.
Yvan: Exactly, the technique itself is very simple – go through, experience, come back, share, so every detail counts. Also you are not in control of the process for most of the time, so the opening and closing are very important. We work here with emptiness so to say, sending people to unknown space of their inner world.
Honza: For me it is also about the right timing in the process. There are groups and themes where you just can’t do it and if you did, it would be a disaster. And of course the question / intention we are giving them to explore. It is based on intuition and feelings, so a task based on thinking is not the right one, because you want people to get a message from an unusual sphere and to provide a space for a different point of view.
Martin: I think one can easily get too spiritual and fluffy which can be disturbing for some participants. But the other extreme is to be too rigid and technical, so it is about the balance of clarity and depth.
Mariia: Yes, exactly. Also we as facilitators should not fall into the trap of playing a spiritual teacher, because this is training and learning. So we need to clarify the aim and context and do a proper reflection at the end so the participants know why they are doing it and what it means as well as understand our intentions behind the activity.
Since the Tool Fair - some reflections
Back home after the Tool Fair I wanted to collect some background information about such activities and actually found out that there was not much in the usual sources, but thanks to Yvan’s advice I understood that originally it comes from the Native American tradition of Vision Quests and is used in many cultures as part of their rites of passage. The inspiration comes from there, so if you want to study this area deeper there are people who have the transmission and transformed it into our context of youth work, social work and training.
Since then I have used similar threshold activities several times with different groups. It is great for courses focused on self-development, as part of training for trainers, as a tool for summarizing learning, seeing things in a different perspective, as an addition to mind based future planning activities and generally useful in times and moments of changes, transitions and decision making.
Sometimes it’s good to use a clear intention like ‘Explore your connections’, sometimes I’ve sent people out looking for a question to work with later. We have built thresholds and gates, or people built their own. There is no real recipe how and when to use this. It is also a challenge for us as trainers to place it in the right moment and to adjust it well. It teaches us about empathy and requires specific sensitivity for the essence.
Usually it works great, however it is a special method that has its own roots and specificities, so I recommend trying it first by yourself. My advice for using such tools is to have clear intention, be authentic, brave, but respectful and humble. And don’t forget to tell the people to return through the portal or you will never see them again.
Good luck with your thresholds, Kristina