Writing and Wholeness:
Online Islands of Safety

Peter and Trudy Johnson-Lenz

in Computer Conferencing: The Last Word (edited by Robin Mason)


1990 Awakening Technology


We have convened a Virtual Learning Community (tm) for self-development education using computer-mediated communications. It’s an island of safety for personal growth and creative action in a sea of turbulent cultural change.

Computer-mediated meetings are potential islands of safety, but safety is created by people, not technology. It occurs when people take the risk to express themselves, trust, and respect each other. However, while technology cannot create safety, it can support it. Groupware can join human potential and supportive technology into a creative whole.

Communicating in writing also supports safety. Participants clarify their thoughts and feelings by composing their responses in private, taking all the time they need. Then they share with the group only what they wish to disclose.

The unifying concept of this paper is the joining of polar opposites into creative wholes. We focus on three wholes (the individual, culture, and groupware) and several polarities they share which are central to unlocking human potential.

To create modern culture we had to forget or discount our essential connections with each other, nature, and the Mystery. To survive as a species now we need to remember these connections -- to become creatively whole, individually and collectively. For this we need safe places where we can remember and explore our potential and learn to use our differences creatively.

Based on these principles, we have designed and developed our own tailorable groupware and have used it to support on-line personal and spiritual growth workshops -- islands of safety for unlocking human potential.


We are grateful for Charles Johnston’s seminal work on purpose-centered psychotherapy and education and for Murray Turoff’s pioneering work in structured human communication via computer. Together these represent the left and right hands of the creative whole on which our work stands. We are also grateful for Robert Theobald’s consistent and inspiring vision over the past twenty years, anticipating the creative interaction between self-development and computer technology.

This paper is dedicated to a vital and sustainable future for all of us and to everyone who is working toward its realization.

Wholeness is Bigger Than Oneness

Unlocking human potential means accessing all of who we are. It is becoming whole as individuals and as a species.

People often mistake oneness (agreement, unity, and light) with wholeness, but wholeness is bigger than that. It necessarily includes everything -- agreement and disagreement, unity and diversity, light and dark, the known and the unknown.

Whole people are big enough for all the parts of themselves, even the parts they disagree with. They know such disagreement is creative power. Whole relationships, groups, and even societies are big enough to use the disagreements of their members in creative ways. Disagreement is the stuff of which social intelligence is made.

Wholeness is developmental. We are growing into it, individually and collectively.

Our Forgotten Potential

Until recently, we have not had the capacity as individuals nor as a species to use more than a fraction of our potential. Moreover, it was necessary to forget much of that potential in order to build industrial culture (Johnston, 1986).

During the Age of Reason, Western culture discounted subjective ways of knowing and spirituality in order to develop the capacity for logic. In order to gain objective knowledge we forgot our essential connection with ourselves, each other, nature, and the Mystery (Bateson, 1972, 1979; Berman, 1981). During the Industrial Era we lived by gender and class roles, "splitting off" to others the parts of ourselves that did not fit those roles. Thus we have had male breadwinners, "women’s intuition," "women’s work," and the like.

Most computer-mediated communications systems reflect this blindspot obscuring our forgotten potential (Johnson-Lenz, 1988). They include computer support for objective knowledge, but provide little for subjective knowledge, such as intuition. These systems support well-defined actions and explicit transactions (Winograd, 1986; Johansen, 1988; Dyson, 1989), but little is known about supporting the dynamic, paradoxical flow of group life. Since it’s easier to understand, most people focus on the technology. But they all too often forget the most important, elusive, human parts of the system.

That’s to be expected. All of us are still growing in our capacity to be whole.

Remembering and Reconciling All of Who We Are

We are now at a crossroads in history when remembering and using our potential and reconciling the polar opposites within and among us is essential for our survival as a species (Johnston, 1990).

To survive and mature, we need to:

Computer technology is an essential part of this evolutionary leap (Theobald and Scott, 1972; Engelbart, 1988). However, if we are to succeed, it must support allof who we are. Our survival "requires that we learn to live by spiritual principles," including "honesty, responsibility, humility, love and a respect for mystery" (Theobald, 1990), and that our technology support this forgotten wellspring of our potential.

Virtual Meetings in Hyperspace

When people meet via computer, a space is created. Where is it?

It’s not where either person is, since they may be miles and time zones apart. It’s some other place where they are together. It’s not in the machine, since clearly they are not inside the hardware. It’s somewhere else beyond the bounds of space and time.

We call this place hyperspace (Johnson-Lenz, 1989). It’s a frontier we are beginning to explore and inhabit.

It’s the mundus imaginalis (Corbin, 1976) where our imaginations’ expressions are released from the limitations of physical reality. In this world of imagination, "persons and places are fully real; they are as real in that domain as our physical world is to our senses....I am not implying that such experiences are imaginary, but rather that they are imaginal" (Ring, 1989).

Meetings in hyperspace are virtual meetings -- meetings in essence and effect, but not physical form (Hiltz, 1986; Rheingold, 1987; Kelly, 1989; Jacobson, 1989).

Currently these virtual meetings take place in writing, rather than through graphics, video, audio, or other means. Rather than a limitation, this can be a significant benefit, particularly for self-development education. Metaphor, nuance, story, even poetry are important for clarifying, communicating, and responding to personal issues and insights. Description (text) rather than depiction (visual media) is often more effective for expressing the subtleties that emerge in hyperspace, and reading invokes the imagination more than pictures.

We are only beginning to understand the dynamics of this space. Many of the principles apply that people have used for millennia to organize our meetings in physical space. New principles are yet to be discovered.

Tailorable Groupware

Groupware, a term we coined in 1978 (Johnson-Lenz, 1980, 1981a, 1982), is the social architecture of hyperspace. It embodies our patterns of social organization in this new frontier.

Most people tend to think of groupware as group software, but that’s only part of it. The creative whole of groupware includes consciously chosen group processes plus software to support them.

Groupware has human as well as computer components. It includes the "software" in the hearts and minds of participants and in the computer. It includes the set and the setting -- people’s expectations and understanding of what is going to happen and the arrangement of space. Both components determine what happens in hyperspace. Together they form a creative whole.

Effective groupware is designed in response to the needs and purposes of those using it. It responds to, supports, and even evokes human potential rather than force-fitting the group into what the computer has been programmed to do. This requires tailorable software which can be adapted to embody appropriate patterns of organization, easily modified in response to evolving group needs, and ultimately tailored by managers, facilitators, and even users -- without programming (Turoff, 1971; Hiltz and Turoff, 1978; Johnson-Lenz, 1981c; Turoff and Hiltz, 1989).

Our Learning Community

In the fall of 1988, after a year of prototyping and pilot testing, we convened our Virtual Learning Community. It uses a computer-mediated communications system and tailorable groupware of our own design.

In our on-line community, we have offered workshops and seminars on topics such as right livelihood, living on purpose, embracing uncertainty, inner knowing, and more. Each is from four to twelve weeks long and includes a mix of personal self-discovery processes; group sharing; focused discussions; and a hypertext of quotes, information, perspectives, and resources for going further.

These seminars and workshops are conducted in writing. Participants read (or download) the weekly self-discovery processes and then reflect on and live with the questions for a few days. Then they compose their responses to share with the group for further discussion. Writing helps them clarify and learn from their thoughts and experiences. It also helps the group use its time together effectively. What takes someone an hour or more to write may take only a few minutes to read.

We also have holiday and solstice celebrations, a dream group, book and movie discussions, a healing circle, wide-ranging informal conversation in the lounge, and more -- all via computer.

The theme of all Awakening Technology activities is living on purpose (Paulson, Brown, and Wolf, 1988; Marks, 1989). Our mission is what Johnston calls "purpose-centered education" (Johnston, 1987): "to help people be in touch with what most matters to them, what for them is most fully alive, and find the courage and capacity to shape their lives from it" (Johnston, 1988b).

We encourage participants to use their inner sense of what is most appropriate for them, and then to act in the world in ways that will make a difference. Our community provides intimate and supportive groups for learning and growing together. We share our pain and despair, as well as our insights, joy, and creative edges. We seldom meet face-to-face because of schedules and far-flung locations. Instead, we meet in hyperspace.

Cultural Transition

At this crossroads in history, many of us are living in two cultures. One foot is still in industrial culture and the other is in the emerging post-industrial, global culture. The patterns of social reality differ markedly in these cultures, particularly with regard to presentation of self and capacity for holding contradictory points of view at the same time.

A few of the characteristics of the split-person social reality of industrial culture are:

Together, these substantially limit our individual and collective creative capacity.

In contrast, a few of the characteristics of the emerging whole-person social reality are:

Wholeness occurs at two levels in such a culture. Each person is whole within himself, capable of holding all of who he is, including the conflicts between his inner parts. Relationships and groups are whole since the creative capacity of each person is fully present. Groups are big enough to hold the conflicts among their members and to use those differences creatively.

Islands of Safety

Since the old culture splits and limits creative capacity, we need safe places free from its influence to build a new whole-person culture.

Here are some of the characteristics of islands of safety that we encourage in our learning community:

During the last decade, a variety of high-trust, high-safety, face-to-face environments have been successfully created (Gibb, 1978; Schutz, 1984; Rogers, 1986; Schindler and Lapid, 1989; and Travis and Callander, 1990b; among others).

In 1980 we created two safe spaces via computer using the tailorable groupware of the Electronic Information Exchange System (Hiltz and Turoff, 1978). The Transform exchange was a covenantal space for exploring personal and social transformation (Johnson-Lenz, 1981a). The One Attunement group was a virtual Quaker-style meeting or "electronic chapel" (Johnson-Lenz, 1981b).

Since then, others have begun to explore the potential of virtual safe spaces including on-line support groups (Farson, 1989; Gonzalez, 1989; Hafter, 1989; among others). However, at this stage little is known about how to create safety intentionally, incorporate explicitly spiritual and holistic principles into the groupware, or ways the computer can support such group work.

In our learning community, we are taking a few more baby steps toward creating such islands of safety via computer.

Computer Support for Safety

While nothing about computer-mediated communications tools creates or guarantees the safety necessary for unlocking our potential, several inherent characteristics of the medium may contribute to it:

On the other hand, these can just as easily discourage the shared rhythms and authentic contact essential for the creation of safety. Something more is needed to realize this potential -- the human component of groupware.

This oft-forgotten component includes the myth, values, purpose, styles, norms, processes, and procedures of the group. Without these, a social system is rudderless and devoid of meaning. With appropriate computer support, it moves in response to the group’s intention -- the computer reflecting and giving form to the patterns in the hearts and minds of its members.

Set for Safety

While the primary polarity within groupware is the distinction between the human and computer components, we also find it useful to distinguish between the set and setting.

The set includes everything that people bring to the group -- their mindsets; intentions; expectations; beliefs; and knowledge of themselves, each other, and how to participate. The more they are prepared for and expect safety, the safer they will feel and the more they will contribute to the safety of others. While this is largely a human component, the computer can provide limited support.

Here are some of the ways we create an appropriate set for safety in our on-line learning community:

Our software supports these through an on-line orientation process which requires viewing the guidelines, agreeing with the covenant, and viewing others’ agreements before participating. This insures that everyone is aware of and knows that everyone agrees to abide by norms that promote safety.

Each successive layer in the process of engagement with our community reflects and expresses our myth, values, purpose, style, and norms. It begins with the promotional literature, is reinforced during registration, continues through orientation, and is ultimately embodied in the setting.

Community Covenant

Participants in our on-line learning community sign a covenant with each other "to create a safe, supportive, and vital learning community together." We agree to keep each other’s items confidential, participate regularly, and inform our group when we are absent for whatever reason. We also agree to accept and be patient with the parts of ourselves and others that are not yet clear, to listen with care and compassion to each other, to speak our truth as well as we can, and to remember and acknowledge everyone’s personal wholeness and connection with the Mystery.

The covenant expresses our shared intent to create a sanctuary -- a safe and sacred place where we can explore being ourselves as we learn, grow together, and deepen our understanding of and connection with ourselves, each other, nature, and the Mystery.

The covenant is our most concise statement of the shared myth, values, purpose, norms, and style in our Virtual Sanctuary (tm).

Setting for Safety

The setting is the environment. It includes the behavior of those present, the arrangement of objects and space, and the ebb and flow of life within it.

Here are some of the ways we create an appropriate setting for safety in our community:

The Paradox of Boundaries

Through experience, we have learned the importance of drawing boundaries to protect the safety of our learning community. All of us are still learning how to live in whole-person ways. Sometimes members behave in split-person ways, projecting their shadow parts on others and then polarizing in reaction.

A common pattern is giving advice -- telling another how to be -- rather than telling one’s own story in a way which respects another’s process and choices. Instead of feeling safe, the other may feel unsupported and hold back parts that disagree with the advice rather than risk conflict. Unfortunately this reiterates the splitting process we are all trying to heal.

Since our purpose is to provide safe places for learning and practicing whole-person ways of being, intervention may necessary. Some ways we draw boundaries to protect the safety of the sanctuary are:

None of this is easily done. Often, the person being asked to change a behavior feels her safety has been compromised, that she is not free to be and express herself as she likes. This leads to additional discussion about the norms and guidelines, sometimes in private, sometimes in the group. To date, all such situations have ultimately been resolved. No one has been asked to leave.

We are learning the paradox of boundaries. To insure the safety of most members, we may need to take actions which a few will feel threatens them. Few of us know how to take what we consider criticism easily, no matter how constructively it is offered. And yet it is essential that we all learn new styles of relating to each other and resolving our differences if we are to survive as a species.

Time Medicine

Another aspect that contributes to safety is timing. When we’re pushed to act, respond, or grow faster than our own process, we resist, withdraw, get sick, or otherwise subvert the situation.

We all experience the "time disease" of our accelerating lives (Dossey, 1982). It’s increasingly difficult for us to live according to our own natural rhythms (Rifkin, 1987). Slowing down, meditating, relaxing, and reflecting are forms of "time medicine" we can give ourselves.

Unlike other systems, our on-line environment includes reminders to take time to relax and reflect, optional guided meditations, and pauses in text to display selected words and phrases slowly and rhythmically. We have no hourly connect charge, so participants are encouraged to take as much time on line as they like.

Such time medicine encourages us to reconnect with our forgotten potential, our inner knowing, our spirituality.

Our Tailorable Groupware Toolchest

To support these aspects of our learning community and action research, we developed our own tailorable groupware. Written in C and running under UNIX, it includes:

All of these can be configured and modified at any time by any permitted user.

While the array of over 30 settings provides a wide variety of exchange patterns, the following are directly relevant to the creation of safety:


Just as the arrangement of furniture and other objects in a room has a significant effect on how people interact, the arrangement of objects in hyperspace governs our interactions there. Successful facilitators pay careful attention to how the space is arranged so that it fits and supports the group’s process needs.

Our software provides a variety of arrangements, several of which emulate the most common structures available on other systems, and several of which are unique to our system. Spaces can be easily rearranged by facilitators -- without reprogramming.

Standard arrangements that are used in our learning community include:

Virtual Circle (tm)

A problem common to most computer-mediated communications systems is the often-elusive sense of group when members participate whenever they like. It’s like trying to have a meeting in a room with people coming and going all the time. A related problem is unequal participation. A few members may be very active, and others "lurk" in the background. While useful in some situations, neither of these contributes to safety.

To solve these problems, we developed the circle arrangement. It is based on a simple, powerful ritual found in many native cultures where everyone sits around a sacred fire. As a "talking stick" is passed around the circle, each person speaks her truth in turn while everyone else listens with respect.

In our Virtual Circles, a round typically takes a week. As with face-to-face circles (Travis and Callander, 1990a), the process encourages equal participation and a coherent sense of group. The computer facilitates the group’s activity by focusing attention on the current topic, inviting everyone to express herself at the appropriate time, and insuring that all items are viewed before the group moves on. We use the circle arrangement for our circle rituals (below).

The following graph clearly shows the difference between the typical Zipf participation curve (Zipf, 1949) found in most virtual meetings (including those in our learning community), and the equal distribution found in our circles (no "lurkers").

Circle Ritual At the heart of our workshops is the on-line circle where we meet to share our truth with each other. We use the circle for opening and closing ceremonies and weekly self-discovery processes.

Based on the Virtual Circle arrangement (above), we meet around an imaginal fire in hyperspace -- a circle in essence and effect, but not physical form. The computer marks the sacred place. The four elements (Grandfather Fire, Mother Earth, Grandmother Ocean, and Father Sky) are displayed in the four directions as the circle is cast and opened.

The names of everyone in the group are slowly displayed in a circle, and members are encouraged to speak them aloud. Participants report that this simple graphic helps give them a sense of the group, even when others are not on line at the same time.

This ritual gives form and meaning to our asynchonous interaction. The circle is the most powerful religious symbol in all of human experience (Campbell, 1988). It symbolizes our individual wholeness as well as our essential connectedness as we share the diversity of our experiences. It is a sacred vessel, an island of safety for unlocking our human potential.


Evaluation ratings and participant feedback show clearly that participants feel our workshops are safe environments and have experienced significant growth through them.

This table summarizes some demographic information about participants in our learning community from September 1988 through December 1989:

Located outside Portland:
Renewed membership after participating in first activity:
Total number of participants:

Sixteen participants in our 1988 seminars responded to a lengthy evaluation questionnaire. Since then we have simplified our evaluation procedures in response to participant feedback. Below are selected tabulations from our original questionnaire.

Participants were asked to rate the following statements on scales from 1 to 5, as indicated below:

Participants were also asked if they agreed with other statements: While these statistics adequately convey our success at creating islands of safety, the following spontaneous testimonials, typical of the many we get from participants, are far more effective at expressing the essentially human experience of our Virtual Sanctuary:
Next Steps

A continuing theme in our work is the joining of opposites in creative wholes. Our work itself embraces business and research. Our purpose is twofold:

We continue to focus our action research on aspects of groupware which we believe are central to the emergence of a sustainable culture. Here are several which are relevant to the topic of this paper: Writing is a powerful way to gain perspective on what one thinks, feels, values, and stands for. Interactive writing in the supportive company of others, using a computer-mediated communications system designed for that purpose, is a potent tool for growing toward wholeness and working to create a vital, sustainable culture both within and through hyperspace.


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