Communitas: Collective Joy Through Joint Social Flow
Joyful aliveness is found in moments of communion with others.
Posted December 23, 2021 | Reviewed by Hara Estroff Marano
- Human beings evolved to be deeply social.
- Sometimes joint activities can break through self-isolation, leading to deep social joy.
Victor and Edith Turner, of anthropological fame, studied communitas, “the sense felt by a group of people when their life together takes on full meaning,” “a tower of the senses, fierce with spirituality (E. Turner, 2017, p. 1), “a sense of siblinghood” with those around you (E. Turner, 2017, p. xi).
Communitas is a difficult experience to describe, even when one is in the middle of experiencing it. It is “the sense felt by a plurality of people without boundaries” (E. Turner, 2017, p. 1). It arises unpredictably, impossible to intentionally create or control, but can come about during intense group focus. The pleasure of a group sharing common experiences in fellowship can emerge anywhere—in music, festivals, disasters, work, stressful times. It doesn’t overwhelm individuality but enhances it in communal delight.
Edith Turner writes: “[Communitas] does not merge identities; the gifts of each and every person are alive to the fullest. It remains a spring of pure possibility, and it finds oneness, in surprise. That is, it has agency, and seems to be searching. It has something magical about it. There appear to be innumerable threads of crisscrossing lines of meaning, flows of meaning…That is its nature.” (E. Turner, 2017, p. 3)
Communitas arrives unexpectedly, like the wind, warming up feelings toward the others.
“Communitas occurs through the readiness of the people—perhaps from necessity—to rid themselves of their concern for status and dependence on structures, and see their fellows as they are” (E. Turner, 2017, pp. 1-2).
Communitas has innumerable permutations but Turner suggests that it requires entering a liminal or negative space of disruption of prior assumptions, habits, expectations and status—an openness to new ways to flourish. This “negative capability,” letting go of preconceptions, scripts, aims, is required for creativity to bloom.
In communitas, “there is a loss of ego. One’s pride in oneself becomes irrelevant. In the group, all are in unity, seamless unity, so that even joshing is cause for delight and there is a lot of laughter” and gratitude (E. Turner, 2017, p. 3). It results in a type of synergy, a joint sense of flowing together, perhaps a type of limbic resonance among a group (Lewis, Amini, & Lannon, 2000).
R. Richard Sorenson (1998) illustrates this synergy and ongoing communitas in a group of New Guinea Fore boys in the forest. Thirteen-year-old Agaso found himself with a good shot at tree-dwelling animal but had poor arrows.
“Without the slightest comment or solicitation, the straightest, sharpest arrow of the group moved so swiftly and so stealthily straight into his hand, I could not see from whence it came. At that same moment, Karako, seeing that the shot would be improved by pulling on a twig to gently move an obstructing branch, was without a word already doing so, in perfect synchrony with Agaso’s drawing of the bow, i.e., just fast enough to fully clear Agaso’s aim by millimeters at the moment his bow was fully drawn, just slow enough not to spook the cuscus. Agaso, knowing this would be the case, made no effort to lean to side for an unobstructed shot or to even slightly shift his stance. Usumu, similarly synchronized into the action stream without even watching Agaso draw his bow, began moving up the tree a fraction of a second before the bowstring twanged. [Usumu] grasped the wounded cuscus before it might regain its sense and slipped out onto a slender branch that whizzed him down to dangle in the air an inch or so before Agaso’s startled face.” (p. 90)
The whole event resulted in group ecstasy. Following the roasting of the animals the group of boys dropped off to sleep entangled “in what can only be described as a contagiously subdued rapture coalescence” (ibid).
Sorenson’s observation illustrates the benefits of communitas: “quick understanding, easy mutual help, and long-term ties with others” (E. Turner, 2017, p. 3). Although communitas can be hijacked for prejudice against an “enemy” or in-group/out-group competitiveness, this anti-holistic-relational energy is not a natural part of its nature. In this case, individuals and groups downshift to ancient predatory ‘power-over’ energy (Bailey, 2002), as occurred in the Rwanda massacre where machete-wielding killers said they got into the flow of murdering dozens (Dallaire, 2003). Unlike this downshift, communitas can be described as an upshifting to our best cooperative selves.
Potential for communitas is embedded in every human being as “an immediate and genuine sense of the other, the plural of beings” which accords with “the ‘other-tending’ nature of the universe” (Turner, 2017, p. 6). Victor Turner considered it an “evolutionary potential” (V. Turner, 1969, p. 128).
Gabel (2018) describes a similar construct, a mutuality of presence, a co-presence where each individual is able to move out of self-concern, out of intellectualizing, out of the cloak of false personality. Instead, they are united in authenticity, “a living latticework of interbeing…tied together in a single garment of destiny…I am he as you are she as you are me and we are all together” (p. xiii).
Edith Turner calls the human heart the measurement of communitas. We can call it "heartmind," also known as "ubuntu" (in Nguni Bantu) or "kokoro" (in Japanese; Nakano, 1997; Nakaya, 2019). Heartmindedness is considered central to being human by most cultures. In my definition (Narvaez, in press), heartmindedness refers to authentic, emotionally-present, relationally-focused ways of being and imagining that rely on well-educated intuitions, emotions and cognitions that develop in a supportive authentic community.
Heartmindedness is a more difficult concept for Westernized people to embody because our child-raising practices break the continuum of connection between infant and caregiver/community through various practices of separation and "training" for independence through isolation in cribs and playpens, as well as corporal punishment. These species-atypical practices force independence on children, rather than allowing it to develop naturally on its own with full nested support (Hewlett & Lamb, 2005; Narvaez, 2014). Young children forced into independence actually develop insecurity in the self (less independence), common features of personalities subjected to cruel treatment in early life; these are practices and outcomes favored by authoritarians (e.g., Greven, 1977, 1990; Milburn & Conrad, 2016; Niederland, 1974). Communitas breaks through the false-self-to-false-self relations in which most industrialized people exist (Gabel, 2018).
Humanity’s desire for mutual recognition is present in the newborn, as Colwyn Trevarthen’s (Trevarthen & Bjørkvold, 2016) work has demonstrated. The child is ready to relate to the caregiver with a mutual "communicative musicality," a pleasurable synchrony of movement, utterance, and visual exchange. In earth-centric (First Nation) communities, individuals have more experiences of this synchrony, as the Sorenson quote indicates. They keep an ongoing social bond with others through mutual play and joint activity, as well as through ceremonial singing and dancing together (e.g., Liedloff, 1972; Young, 2019), making the appearance of communitas more likely.
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