Spiral Journey Teams of Two — A New Model for Citizen Activism

two-boys-walking Dennis Rivers and the Spiral Journey Peer Mentoring Network – January 8, 2014 revision 

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The Spiral Journey Peer Mentoring Network is one possible vision of how to work on issues of ecological sustainability in ways that are also emotionally sustainable. The Spiral Journey Mandala is a free, open-source, creative commons, twenty-four part, toolkit for emotional survival in a world that is coming unraveled through chronic war and ecological catastrophes.  A key element of the Spiral Journey approach is the recommendation that people pair up in mutual support teams of two to work on the ecological and political crises of our time.  Teams of Two is an effort to carry forward the practice in recent decades of forming “affinity groups,” but to continue that practice in a way that makes the teams easier to start, provides the participants with more focused attention, and includes a conscious commitment to personal development and peer mentoring.  

Emotional support in “enduring emergencies”

One of the fundamental principles at work in the Spiral Journey approach is that the deeper the task you ask a person to work on, the deeper the support you ought to offer that person.  Therefore, for example, if we are going to appeal to people to make strenuous efforts to keep the world from being poisoned by leaking nuclear power plants, then it seems reasonable that we should provide some opportunity for people to express the distresses they might feel as they master the issues associated with the poison of nuclear waste.  Many antinuclear groups have not yet begun to operate at this level, but it is greatly to be hoped that this level of support will emerge as ecological advocacy groups evolve and mature.  Eco-philosopher and anti-nuclear activist Joanna Macy is an inspiring pioneer in this area, and much of the Spiral Journey model is drawn from her work.

A good deal of ecological activism follows what I think of as the “house on fire” model. Which is to say, “drop whatever you’re doing right now and attend to this,” because this is the most important emergency.  In the case of a house being on fire, you don’t give much thought while fighting the fire to the kind of person you hope to become in the course of your lifetime.  But the ecological crises of our time, and the global economic inequality that kills millions of people year, may well last longer than our entire lives. They are what you might call enduring emergencies. Global warming and Chernobyl and Fukushima are processes of injury that will unfold over hundreds or even thousands of years. In relation to those challenges, we can’t give up on our quest to become more fully realized persons while we attend to these crises.  Because most of my life has been overshadowed by issues involving nuclear weapons and nuclear waste, I am searching for a way to become a more fully realized human being in the middle of my activities on behalf of the web of life.  There are some existing examples of how this might be done: Gandhi’s Karma Yoga, the engaged Buddhism of Thich Nhat Hanh and AungSan Suu Kyi, the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the Quaker Book of Faith and Practice, and the life of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador.  As is so often the case, our task is to take something which is rare and beautiful and try to make it a part of everyday living.

A twenty-four-part learning agenda

Affinity groups struggle to find a balance between anarchy and rigidity, between no guidance at all and a suffocating set of rules.  The Spiral Journey Peer Support Network seeks to operate in a creative middle ground between these two extremes.  On the one hand, from the experience of many activists and advocates over the past century, we have already identified many of the issues that are going to come up in the course of working on extremely challenging issues, such as, for example, the ongoing killing of teenagers by Bay Area law enforcement officers, or the betrayal of the Japanese population and the world by the owners of the severely damaged Fukushima nuclear power station. 

We know that in the course of working on issues like these, people will begin to wrestle with many of the time-honored topics the Spiral Journey, such as forgiveness, gratitude for life in the face of tragedy and betrayal, truthfulness, empathy, and so on.  But we present the twenty-four part agenda of the Spiral Journey as a list of strongly suggested topics to explore rather than as a rigid curriculum that must be completed in any particular order.  There is no one best way for a given person or team to work on these twenty-four topics, so we leave it open for each person and each Team of Two to invent the way that they are going to make use of the learning agenda, which topics they are going to explore, and how they are going to explore them.  Our responsibility is to provide a rich set of resources and inspiring stories in support of each of those twenty-four steps. We operate from the perspective that the deeper levels of human development cannot be required of people, they can only be inspired in people.

Some models we are learning from, and some we are struggling against

One challenge that we face in organizing a peer support network is that in Western societies the psychotherapy profession has come to dominate the process of emotional support giving.  In recent decades psychologists in the United States even moved to classify all processes of emotional support and discussions of personal development as the unique province of licensed professionals (themselves). (This effort failed because of freedom of speech and religious freedom issues.) For the most part, however, the gradual monopolization of emotional support conversations by psychotherapists has not been the result of a conscious plan on their part.  It is much more an unfortunate byproduct of the process of professionalization itself.  Whenever one group in society starts specializing in a particular activity (brain surgery, house wiring, shoe making), they generally do it better than every one else, and most people stop doing it, leaving it to the experts. 

This professionalization brings good results in some areas of life and terrible results in other areas. Many of the challenges facing us today, such as chronic war, climate change, nuclear waste, and global disease related to tobacco use, can’t be solved by experts alone.  They involve society-wide consensus shifting and the participation of as many people as possible.  So we need to learn from examples of wide participation, such as 12-Step groups and the Civil Rights movement  We might also learn from other examples, such as how specific card games are played around the world with relatively little supervision, how popular songs spread across the world, and the structure of amateur sports, to understand more about how such movements and activities reach out to involve and empower new people.

There is a natural tension in human societies between excellence and egalitarianism.  For their survival, societies need both inclusiveness and excellence, but these two pull in different directions.  Twelve-step groups admit practically everyone who shows up, but they fail in a variety of ways (lots of people drop out).  Elite medical schools graduate a high proportion of excellent doctors, but exclude most applicants.  Our slowly evolving Spiral Journey peer mentoring and peer support network aspires to nurture both inclusiveness and excellence, but that will require deep creativity on our part.

Three empowering ideas

In searching for resources that could empower a wide range of people to live more courageously, compassionately and supportively, Spiral Journey begins first with ideas from three inspiring “spiritual permission granters:” Mahatma Gandhi, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the eco-philosopher Joanna Macy.

From Mahatma Gandhi we receive the idea that we have the power to be the change we want to see.  I am convinced that this idea is rooted in Gandhi’s Hinduism.  Hinduism is based on the idea that your individual soul (Atman) is a wave in the ocean of God’s Being (Brahman).  Therefore, you have infinite resources within you, although you may not have learned how to mobilize them for the good of everyone.  It is possible to express this vision of empowerment as based in nature, as well, for those of us who are not Hindus or are not particularly religious.  For example, one could say, following along the lines of Gandhi, that every cell in your body contains the five hundred million year history of life, therefore you have within you a well of living intelligence to draw on in overcoming whatever obstacles your society faces.  You have the power, in both these visions, to be the change you want to see. And you have the power to stand against the entire world in those times when the world sinks into the confusion of greed and violence. In terms of a mutual support network, Gandhi’s vision allows us to see one another as partners in the mobilization of that profound compassionate intelligence, hidden, but yearning to be born, in every human being

From the Rev. Martin Luther King,Jr., we receive the idea of the “Beloved Community,” a vision of inclusiveness that grows out of the belief in one supremely loving Creator, who has created us all as brothers and sisters.  Because of that, our vision of the transformation of society must necessarily include all those people with whom we disagree, all those people we see as creating society’s problems. In Dr. King’s vision, the power of love reaches out to include everyone, to transform unjust social arrangements, and to lift us up to be the generous and noble human beings we were intended to be by our Creator. In terms of a mutual support network, Dr. King’s vision allows us to see one another as partners in the mobilization of that deep love, hidden, but yearning to be born, in every human heart.

From the eco-philosopher Joanna Macy, we receive a profound idea that changes our relationship to the crises of our time.  Our pain for the world, she insists, is not a problem that we should try to be getting rid of.  Our society, obsessed with success, views every discomfort is a sign of failure, which must be medicated or therapized out of existence.  To the contrary, Joanna Macy insists, our pain for the world bears a secret witness to our love for the world.  Our pain for the world is not a failure, it is the best part of us yearning to be expressed.  Even more, our pain for the Web of Life and the obliteration of countless species is the Web of Life speaking through us, moving through us, and calling us to a life of heroic service. The way forward, in Joanna Macy’s vision, is not to avoid our pain but to enter into it fully and consciously, and to find the love that is hidden within it.  Empowered by that love we can go forth and participate in the healing of the world. In terms of a mutual support network, Joanna Macy’s vision allows us to see one another as partners and companions in the radical transformation of personal pain into courageous love.

Three visionaries of peer support

Another strong source of inspiration for the Spiral Journey Peer Support Network is the work of Carl Rogers, a 20th-century psychologist, university professor and scholar of human development.  In the course of analyzing hundreds of psychotherapy transcripts, Rogers discovered that there were three underlying attitudes on the part of the therapist that seem to help the client take the next step in their developmental journey.  These three attitudes were caring, sincerity, and an actively voiced empathy, a nonjudgmental effort to see the world through the eyes of the client, and reflect that world back to the client.  Rogers built on his experience to propose that these three attitudes are the universal ingredients of developmental encouragement, whether between therapist and client, teacher and student, parent and child, minister and parishioner, spouse and spouse, or friend and friend.  Rogers’ discovery offered the possibility that we might grow toward becoming a more empathic civilization, because these attitudes could be adopted, with conscious effort, by everyone. The developmental problems of individuals become the developmental problems of entire societies: a society permanently at war, such as the one I live in, becomes a society which is cruel and deceitful. As we work to steer our lives toward kindness and truthfulness, we work not only to improve our own lives, but also to tilt the scales of the world.

Rogers’ discovery about caring, sincerity and empathy collided with the needs of the emerging psychotherapy profession, which needed, in order to justify its professional existence, to have access to specific tools and techniques that were by definition beyond the reach of the “unlicensed” laypeople.  Although Carl Rogers lost that particular struggle, it is not too late to develop the life-enhancing implications of his work.  A small but steady stream of writers have been doing so over the past forty years, while mainstream psychology and psychiatry have become preoccupied with medication as an alternative to developmental encouragement and support.

Additional writers who have encouraged me with materials for a mutual support community include the following:

Gerald Goodman, now emeritus Professor of Psychology at UCLA, did research in the 1960s that led to his 1972 book, Companionship Therapy, which focused on the beneficial effects on troubled ten- and eleven-year-old boys of being in the regular presence of a “supportive other,” in this case a university student.  Goodman went on to write The Talk Book, a communication skills self-help book intended to empower us all to become “supportive others” in one another’s lives.

Lawrence Brammer, a professor at the University of Washington, and author of The Helping Relationship: Process and Skills (2002).  Brammer points out that most people who are experiencing distress in life are not mentally ill. They simply need the presence of a supportive other in order to help them mobilize their coping resources.  We could all learn specific skills and attitudes that would allow us to be more supportive of one another in times of acute distress and disorientation. Brammer documents these skills in great detail. What I would add to Brammer’s analysis is that widespread knowledge of how to be a supportive presence does not fit well into the dominant script of professional success in our society, which requires that we master a rare specialty, and focus on people with spectacular distresses. 

Another writer who has done a wonderful job of carrying forward the work of Carl Rogers and his associates, is Jacqueline Small.  Her book, Becoming Naturally Therapeutic: A Return To The True Essence Of Helping,  is a kind of universal guide to being a helpful companion on the bumpy road of life.

The strength of all three of these books is that they unfold the process of being a supportive companion in great detail.  The limitation of these three books is that they generally conceive of the helping relationship as being primarily between a skilled helper and a person in need.  My challenge is to translate these ideas into a vocabulary of mutual support rather than one-way helping.

An Open Learning/Teaching Model

The Spiral Journey Peer Support Network is seeking to make use of a three-part understanding of what it means to be on an equal footing with others.

Within the Spiral Journey Peer Support Network everyone is empowered to teach the day they show up.  We may as well accept that responsibility, because we are already teaching all the time.  I may not be teaching algebra all the time, but every waking moment that I’m in the presence of other people I am teaching by example how to be a person.  So in relation to the basic qualities of being a person, the division of any human group into teachers and learners is total bunk! We may not be teaching particularly inspiring lessons, but we are all teaching each other and all learning from each other all the time.  We are already on the stage of the world, so we may as well learn to sing better. This is the message of the discovery of “mirror neurons.”  (I invite you to read up on them.)

Of course, you can only really teach as much as you have lived.  The goal of the Spiral Journey movement is not to set standards, test people and discover who has failed the test. Instead, it is about understanding human development more deeply, and encouraging people to grow from wherever they are in their developmental journey.  The further you go along the path of human unfolding, the more you realize that at any given moment a challenge could come along that would be so large that it would cause you to fail.  So at a deeper level, all the beginners and all the experts in this world are really in the same human boat. We are all perpetual beginners. That is why we have chosen the Chambered Nautilus as one of our guiding images. We are never finished evolving.  Each of the 24 dimensions in the Spiral Journey calls us toward an open horizon.

Teams of Two as Three-Part Learning Companions


In my experience, it seems that we have at least three different relationships with every person we meet.  And those three relationships call to us to play three different roles, somewhat like a chord of three notes played on the piano. There are some areas and topics in life where you know more than I do and you’ve lived more than I have lived.  In relation to those areas I am your student.  There are some areas and topics in life where we know roughly the same amount and we’ve had roughly the same amount of experience. In relation to those areas, I am your companion.  And there might be some areas and topics in life where I know more than you do, or have had more experience than you have had. In relation to those areas, life calls me to be your servant-mentor.  My task is to support you and encourage you in your learning and exploration.  In a society based on competition and merit examinations, there is a powerful focus on knowing more than other people know. To the degree that I succumb to that influence, I would tend to focus almost entirely on the areas where I know more than you do. But if I do that, not only will I become an unpleasant person to be around, I will also be seriously out of touch with people, missing two thirds of the creative possibilities in every encounter.  In relation to the twenty-four steps of the Spiral Journey, you already have much to share, much to teach me. You have had many life experiences that I have not had, and you have struggled through many situations that I have not yet encountered.

Co-mentoring: A Different Way of Teaching

Life would be a whole lot easier and simpler, if we could just take all the important lessons of a lifetime, turn them into simple declarative sentences, and get people to memorize and affirm them.  But the truth is that people have been trying to do that for a long time; and it doesn’t work. (In the wars of the past hundred years you can see our verbal wisdom failing us in a catastrophic way.) 

As wonderful as it is, human language is really limited.  We know much, much, more than we can say.  So the best that words can do is to point us in a good direction, up the mountain, as it were. They can’t carry us up the mountain.  We have to hike up the mountain ourselves. The best wisdom that can be expressed in words sets the stage for us to grow into something much larger than words.  If I squeeze an orange, I will actually get orange juice.  But if I repeat the word, “lovingkindness” (which is one of my favorite words), over and over again, that repetition by itself will not automatically make me kinder.  In the course of my life I have become convinced that in order to know the meaning of the word, “lovingkindness,” I must actually try to practice it, I must go outside of my wordy comfort zone and find new ways of interacting with people, and I can’t be sure beforehand how things will work out.

All of this has deep implications for teaching the twenty-four steps of the Spiral Journey.  It suggests that however inspired a person’s discoveries about life might be, there are severe limits as to how much of those discoveries can be transferred with words into the minds of others.  (Songs and pictures increase that transferability a bit, but not nearly as much as I would hope.) What we can do is to walk along beside one another in a journey of exploration and discovery.  And that walking-along-beside can be a powerful, life-giving form of encouragement, even though it tends to unfold in quiet ways and focuses on deep questions rather than dramatic answers.  An analogy from sports would be to say, I can’t run for you, nor you for me, but running together we can encourage each other to run further than either of us would have run alone.  We are co-mentors.

Coming back to the theme of lovingkindness, it may be true that lovingkindness is THE answer to all personal and global crises.  But it won’t be OUR answer until we have learned to cultivate it.  We invite you to explore the radical view that we need to hold the classics of compassion in one hand and our own tentative learning processes in the other, as messy as they may be.  The ordinary view is that the classics are all important and your particular learning processes hardly matter at all. In the Spiral Journey model, our learning processes are in the foreground. No matter how great lovingkindness may have been in the hearts of the beautiful saints and teachers who have gone before us, lovingkindness will only live in the world today to the degree that we make it our own. So we are as important as all those beautiful saints and teachers. We are not merely passive observers of other people’s greatness, we are active participants in the evolution of humanity, however much of a beginner each one of us may feel ourselves to be.



The purpose of the Spiral Journey Mandala is to support people in “running further” with the difficult issues of our time.  Working together in teams of two, and larger groups, we can encourage each other to do more, to carry more, and to become more, than would be possible if we were acting alone. 

Most of the topics included in the Spiral Journey Mandala have been around for centuries. We are happy to be one possible affirmation of them, but only one of many. Because each person includes unique elements of temperament and experience, no one model will work well for everyone, just as no one shoe will fit all feet equally well. That leads us to adopt a walking-along-beside style of co-learning and co-mentoring focused on an agenda of deep questions rather than a creed of strong answers.[1] Because the world is so focused on answer giving rather than on question exploring, we describe the Spiral Journey in a variety of ways, over and over again, in an effort to help people stay focused on the open-ended, question-exploring approach.

twenty-four beautiful possibilities

twenty-four starting places,

twenty-four evocative questions,
twenty-four topics to explore,
twenty-four dimensions to develop,
twenty-four ears with which to listen, ways of paying attention,
twenty-four abilities to unfold and co-mentor,
twenty-four ways in which to be present for one another,
twenty-four ways to nurture the unfolding of another human being,
twenty-four ways of being a friend, companion, coworker, spouse, citizen. 

The twenty-four challenges of the Spiral Journey are much more like a pile of cooking ingredients than they are like a finished meal.  And the ingredients have more of a chance of becoming the finished meal when we look at everyone we meet as a three-part learning companion, and when we look at our own messy, 24-part learning processes as the growing edges of the world’s difficult pilgrimage toward love, wisdom and creativity. 



Even an agenda of questions is a creed of sorts; we can’t get away from that. Every choice to pay attention to a particular thing implies to me an affirmation that that thing is worthy of attention.





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