Is Possibility Management a cult? I'm glad you asked.
Updated: Dec 17, 2020
I study, practice and share a type of personal development work called Possibility Management (PM). I like it a lot.
Like most coaches, trainers, and therapists of every kind, I offer what I offer because... it works for me. And I enjoy sharing it with others because experience shows it works well for others too. It's powerful stuff.
Here's the thing - powerful processes are not necessarily responsible or worthwhile.
Anyone who considers getting involved in any powerful process needs to consider - is the power in this process being used well?
So I want to openly address a question that many people will wonder about, but which few people will openly ask: is Possibility Management a cult?
First, I acknowledge that it is honorable and important to guard yourself and your community against cult dynamics.
I know this from personal experience. When I was 8 years old, a friend of my parents was ritually murdered as part of a totally bizarre and sick cult dynamic. My family was not in that cult, but it left me with a powerful sense of how bad things can get when groups go wrong.
So when I say “I’m glad you asked”, I really mean it.
Fear has many wonderful purposes to serve in your life, and one of them is to avoid naively giving trust to people and processes without honouring your needs.
The same qualities that make a transformational space powerfully good also make it powerfully hazardous.
If you feel fear going into an unfamiliar process, that's a good sign. Numbing or denying your fear would handicap your intuition, and leave you susceptible to manipulation.
Your fear is not a reason to back away from transformational spaces.
It is a reason to get clarity so that you can navigate towards the great possibilities they provide, and away from the rocks.
Some of you might have histories like mine, and might feel very strong fear indeed. So I want to take the time to answer this question as thoughtfully and as honestly as I can.
I’m going to give you two different kinds of answer. The first is a general observation about cults; the second is about PM specifically.
My first answer is this.
Many human groups can have a possibility of becoming cults. I imagine that few people set out to create cults (although some do), and almost no one ever sets out to join one.
That means we have to accept that cults don't necessarily look cultish to begin with. If they did, no one would ever have joined a cult!
This observation has two consequences:
You can’t necessarily tell from the outside whether a group is a cult or not, although sometimes you can
Even if you join a healthy group, it doesn’t mean it won’t turn into a cult later
Therefore, it is not so important to decide whether a group is a cult.
It is far more important to ask: are you equipped to be able to navigate and stand up against cult-like tendencies wherever they occur?
To start with, have you thought about how you would tell the difference between a healthy group and cult? And can you discuss this candidly and constructively with others inside the community you are joining?
If the answers are 'yes' and 'yes', then there's a good chance things will go well - not just now, but into the future.
My second answer draws on a model developed by Jamie Wheal for spotting cult dynamics.
Let’s talk about how Possibility Management (in my experience) has stacked up against Jamie’s criteria.
The One Ring of Power
Just like in Lord of the Rings, things can go really badly when people consider themselves uniquely competent to handle powerful tools, and jealously guard their tools from others’ free use and experimentation.
Jamie talks about three different ways this commonly presents:
A mythologised origin story of the founder. In this story, the founder is often ‘marked out’ in early life by birth circumstances or prodigious talent.
Absolutist claims of attainment. If the founder is infallible, it means all concern from others can be dismissed as projections, and no improvement can possibly be made to his or her thought.
Ritualised separation. The founder is kept at a distance from followers.
So, how does Possibility Management stack up against these criteria?
Possibility Management is a set of tools which, to a significant degree, have been authored and assembled by Clinton Callahan, and with very significant contributions from others.
Clinton’s writing freely acknowledges many external influences, and Clinton’s own website provides an extensive suggested bibliography of other authors that have inspired him. Most if not all of Clinton's writing is released on copyleft licensing, so that it can be updated, re-interpreted and adopted by other modalities.
Possibility Management suggests no states of absolute attainment. All trainers are just people on their own learning journeys, albeit ones with significant and useful experience. In PM, we emphasise the ways we all continuously need to re-commit to our highest principles, and we acknowledge that we can, and do, all fail.
There is no hierarchy among trainers. Trainings run by other trainers are not considered to be of any lower quality than the trainings Clinton runs himself.
Possibility Management suggests that once we have learned how to express our full spectrum of anger, fear, joy and sadness we have an irreversible change to our relationship with those feelings. This is the closest thing I can think of to any kind of absolute attainment. Except it is not absolute attainment. It is just considered to be a valuable initiation into human adulthood.
I have never done a training with Clinton, yet I am able to become a trainer if I want to. Despite being the 'founder' his involvement is not considered necessary.
In conclusion, there really is no “one ring of power” in PM. Power is very evenly distributed through the community.
Indeed the techniques themselves constantly emphasise centeredness, clarity of boundaries, and learning to trust one’s own inner navigation.
Creating In/Out Groups
Yup, it’s a thing. Not just in PM, but everywhere. I’m sure you’ve noticed.
In one way, it’s totally normal and functional for humans to create in and out groups. In fact, as soon as you create a group, you’ve unavoidably implied that there’s an outside.
Jamie draws attention to three potential warning signs that the in-group out-group dynamics are becoming toxic:
Messianic purpose: although the group might be small, it considers itself to have a grandiose world-saving impact. The outside world is considered to require salvation from itself by the in-group elite.
Specialised concepts: novel terms are used to describe or redefine everyday concepts so there is reduced interoperability between the language of the in-group and the language of the out-group.
Break with past precedents: the in-group considers itself so innovative that all historical critiques of similar groups are irrelevant.
In my experience, Possibility Managers sometimes flirt with these dynamics.
‘Rescuing the world’ would not be encouraged in Possibility Management. Powerful action against the ecocidal insanity of modern culture is nonetheless a common interest of many Possibility Managers, as it is elsewhere also.
There are some specialised concepts and re-wordings. For example, we use the word “Box” to describe more widely used words like “ego”, “survival strategies” or “personality”.
And as for precedents, there are probably some things that are considered innovative and other things are overtly derivative. Some of the innovations specifically exist to try to avoid the kinds of shadow dynamics that this article is concerned with.
I'm quite comfortable that the in-group dynamics are unusually healthy in the PM community.
Weaponised Peak Experience/Healing
To create any state that can genuinely change one’s life is a high responsibility thing to do. A peak healing state is a very vulnerable place.
In PM, we call that state a “liquid” state - a state in which previously solid assumptions feel gooey and confusing.
It’s valuable to go into a liquid state, for example, if you have built your life on the assumption that you can’t trust men or you can’t trust women, or if you can’t express anger because you have assumed anger is necessarily dangerous.
In a liquid state, you can make other healthy decisions in a way that can stick. For example, you could replace the belief “I can’t trust men” with “I choose who I trust”. You could replace the belief “anger is always dangerous” with “I use my anger responsibly, and accept feedback”.
That is the value of a liquid state.
But it’s easy to see how a liquid state could be manipulated by a facilitator. For example, someone irresponsible could say “Who brought you into this liquid state? Me. Look how powerful I am. I am the only man you can trust” or “Who made it safe for you to use your anger? Me. Now you must use that anger against my enemies.”
Jamie identifies three situations that could flag manipulative group dynamics:
Tightly controlled or scripted access to peak experiences and healing states. Often these would need to be in spaces held by the founder or by senior people in a hierarchy.
A dogmatic emphasis on the truth of peak feeling states over discernment and thoughtful critique, perhaps with a denial of the value of mental processes.
Key decisions are encouraged or forced during non-ordinary states.
How does PM stack up against these criteria?
In PM, everyone is immediately trained in key aspects of supporting each other in liquid states in ways that are not manipulative. After your first Expand the Box training, you will be competent to hold space for valuable healing spaces for others. Of course, some things require more training and understanding than others. But there is no obstacle to anyone developing those skills and applying them independent of the trainers. Indeed huge resources are freely available online for everyone's on-going learning.
In my experience, my liquid states have been treated very responsibly by those around me. And I have only seen trainers act responsibly in this respect.
Some kinds of decisions are encouraged in liquid states. Others are specifically not encouraged.
For example, I have been encouraged to examine my old decisions and assumptions, and see if I can find more empowering or responsible decisions I could make for myself.
On the other hand, I have been explicitly discouraged from making significant life decisions around employment, money, relationships and family while in liquid states.
Feeling states are considered hugely important in PM, but not to the exclusion of personal discernment and thinking.
Use your fear to keep your eyes open to shadow group dynamics; get clear about the things to look out for.
All transformative spaces are hazardous spaces, and require high levels of responsibility.
In my experience, I have found PM communities vastly more responsible than modern culture broadly, and I am profoundly grateful for the transformative spaces I have participated in.