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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

AM23-PP5: Religion and organisations - Learning from the Balinese about an absent presence

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Parallel Papers Session 1

Friday 30 June 13.30pm-14.45 SAST - ONLINE
Paper Code: PP5
Religion and organisations - Learning from the Balinese about an absent presence

Presenter: Mark Argent


Religion is found in all societies — with the implication that the capacity for religion is a basic part of being human, though it’s often overlooked in thinking about organisations.

Part of the problem is the decline in religion in the West, so religion is often rejected rather than critically engaged with. One symptom of this is a false dichotomy between “religion” and “spirituality” — overlooking the degree to which individual spiritual experience is shaped by social context.

Experience among the Balinese offer a different perspective on this, fusing a distinctive form of Hinduism with an older animism in a way that is only found on Bali, and is more- or-less universal among the Balinese. It’s possible to think about the this in terms of collective unconscious process in stories, rituals and self-understanding, and also as passing wisdom across the generations which becomes particularly important in protecting the environment, in the processing of trauma and in the work of Balinese healers.

The Balinese talk of sekala — the seen “everyday” world, and niskala — the unseen world of the spirits as equally important. The offerings and rituals which reflect the importance of niskala are a part of daily life and give Bali its nickname “the island of the gods”. From a psychoanalytic perspective it is possible to think of sekala and niskala as “conscious” and “unconscious”, but a more helpful question is what psychoanalysis can learn from the Balinese about making sense of what it is to be human, and the role of religion.

It’s worth thinking about the impact on Bion of his childhood encounters with Hindus in India and the gap between Western “spiritual tourists” heading to somewhere like Bali, and what’s actually there.

In the West today, religion is largely seen as “personal” or “private”, which begs the question of where the capacity for religion goes in contemporary organisations. In an experiential event a colleague and I attempted to probe that question. As we came to the final time boundary the group was talking about death and dying. How far are organisations and how far is capitalism in the West about an impossible attempt to deny death, which religion might once have helped us face in a more healthy way?

Stories and myths offer a way to make sense of life. How far is it helpful to think of the stories in an organisation by which people understand their role and purpose with the subtlety one might use with religious myths? Extreme support for Brexit in the UK has been dismissed as “religious”, but that looks different if “religious” stories are heard as ones that address people’s anxieties, rather than being factually accurate (so the “lies” supporting Brexit say something important, though with little to do with the EU).

I am thinking of Bali as my strongest experience of religion outside “advanced” Western culture. What are the spiritual / religious riches that have been lost in becoming “advanced”?