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Peer groups: Wiston autumn group – first morning

Back in May I wrote about a peer Mixed Group I have been involved in for many years.  I explained how I'd been coming to this Mixed Group since 1991 and how the group had evolved and budded off both a Men's Group and Women's Group.  I talked about the origins and purpose of these groups and also why writing about my personal involvement in them seems relevant to this blog on stress, health & wellbeing.

Besides the Mixed Group in May, I have also come regularly to a Men's Group in November.  They are both just four days long and I've found them hugely precious over the years.  This autumn's Men's Group was at Wiston Lodge about an hour's drive south of Edinburgh and I took my Eee PC along to it to write a bit about my experience: 

So now it's the first morning of the Men's Group.  I woke even earlier than I'd expected.  Happily I'd thought last night that I would be wanting to get up this morning without disturbing the other three guys sharing the bedroom.  I'd left clothes, washing things and this little computer out by the stairs.  When I finally slipped out of bed at 4.30am, I had already been lying for a while thinking about the group and our arrival yesterday evening. 

There are 37 of us.  I smile and feel energised just thinking about how many we are,  What a crazy, delightful number of people to try to get agreement from in sorting the structure of a 'leaderless' four day group.  And of course it worked fine last night.  This Men's Group has been running for 15 years, since 1993.  We have kind of been here, done that, bought the t-shirt.  And actually even this 15 year old group is a bit of a newcomer.  There are two or three people here that I went to a leaderless (peer-led) weekend residential with in about 1974 - 34 years ago - as a bunch of young medical students.

Who are we?  Why are we here?  Well here, for this four days, there are 37 of us.  We range in age from maybe mid-20's to pushing 70.  We come from all around the UK, so getting here yesterday was quite an exercise - including arranging for 4 guys with their cars to rendezvous with 13 people arriving from the south at Edinburgh's Waverley station.  Three are sons whose fathers are also here.  There are a couple of brothers.  Some of us have known each other for nearly 40 years.  Others have never seen each other before.  Probably a dozen or so of us are medical doctors.  There are also psychologists, counsellors, crafts people, business men, students, retired people.

The Men's Group has a wiki - a cooperative website - that newcomers are encouraged to look through before coming.  There's a section on the wiki entitled "Purpose of the groups" that reads "We're a peer group, so we make of the group what we choose. The 'purpose' that brings each of us to these groups is going to vary. Different people will have different purposes. Also, over time, what brought someone to the group in the first place may evolve into something different. So curiosity might evolve into personal growth work. Personal growth work, over time, might begin to mix with an appreciation of linking with friends ... and so on. We're all different. One challenge we all work with in the group, in one way or another, is the dance of being true to our own inner sense of direction while also being sensitive to where others are coming from.

Since the beginning of the human race, men have probably come together to link up, talk, learn, appreciate. A letter introducing one of the first groups said: "There are several overlapping reasons why taking time like this feels so worthwhile. One major one is about friendship. So many of us are very busy. We see each other in the spaces left by work and home. Often too, sheer distance makes it hard to share as much time together as we would like. Getting four days like this seems an incredible gift. A second big reason connects with this. Yeats said somewhere: ‘A friend is someone who sees the potential in you and helps you to live it'. Most of us who are coming run workshops, see clients, do whatever we do as experienced carers and therapists. It's not often we are in a group of our peers for extended high quality time like this. We can love and challenge each other - to live more who we can be. A third reason is the place. We will be staying in a converted watermill in a beautiful area of East Cumbria. It's regenerating to spend time there. There are curlews, pewits, hares, sheep, flowers, the stream by the house, hills - it's great. A very good place to be ... ."  (The group I was writing about here was at Fawcett Mill Fields in Cumbria).

Also in those early suggestions of why we might come together as a group was a reference to the 'three refuges' (and the ‘three jewels') in Buddhism - the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. I wrote that although I'm not a Buddhist there's a sense in which these 'three refuges' seem very relevant to what these groups are about. So, for me, the Buddha represents a belief that we are all capable of living more fully, more richly, more truly. The Dharma represents a belief that there are ways, methods, environments that can help this process. The Sangha - the community - represents the sense that being with others who are serious about this process can be very helpful. I quoted Yeats on seeing the potential in each other or "A friend is someone who knows the song in your heart and can sing it back to you when you have forgotten the words". I asked if friends felt they wanted to try spending a few days together in this way."

That section of the wiki referred to early Spring groups in Cumbria.  The Men's Group grew over the years.  Friends invited friends.   Fathers even invited their sons.  The proportion of us who are health professionals reduced somewhat.  The number of people coming increased from 9 at the first Men's Group in '93 to the mid-20's.  Eventually we couldn't all fit into the big converted watermill where the groups typically ran.  It was fairly traumatic having a group of 25 or so guys deciding what to do in this situation - partly because there wasn't a right or wrong answer, partly because different people wanted different things from the groups.  So some people have 'broken away' deciding to go on meeting in much smaller groups just with old friends.  This makes very good sense.  Re-meeting and nourishing established friendships is one of the central reasons why I come to these groups - and why these groups started in the first place.  Some of us though were also committed to growth, sharing, inviting in new people - partly because we believe these groups are hugely valuable and precious and we want to share, partly because some of us have sons and wanted to be able to keep the group available to them joining if they ever wanted to, partly because some people inevitably will sometimes stop coming to the groups and we need to constantly have new life, new energy coming in.  Hey and maybe it's because some of us want to save the world! 

So for those of us who wanted to hang in with this main trunk of the Men's Group, we agreed we would split into two groups (or maybe more).  In 2004 & 2005 we ran as two groups of about 15 or so each.  We also looked for somewhere that would be big enough to take 30 to 40 people.  In 2006 we came together for this mega-group for the first time here at Wiston.  It worked so well that we agreed to shift to meeting as mega-group and split groups on alternate years - so here we are back at Wiston in 2008.  The group time, we've agreed, will be divided up between chunks in small supportive groups of 4, chunks in three separate groups of 12 to 13, and chunks in the full group of 37.  Although everything is up for discussion and negotiation, there is also a strong group 'culture' which means many ways of doing things carry through fairly regularly from year to year.  To keep the culture strong (I've seen a peer group fall apart when the culture was diluted by newcomers too quickly) we don't allow any group to run with more than 20% newcomers.

Interestingly in the early summer of this year I decided I'd like to mention these groups in a lecture I was giving on the importance of the therapeutic relationship.  I thought it would be fascinating to find out whether health professionals who had been to these peer Men's and Mixed Groups felt that what they had experienced had been useful for their work helping others.  I sent out a simple survey to 46 such people who had been to these groups, asking "Please give a number somewhere between 0 and 10 to indicate approximately how helpful you feel these groups have been for you as a health professional, where 0 stands for ‘not helpful at all' right up to 10 which stands for ‘very helpful indeed'."  I had 45 responses.  They gave an average score of 8.4 out of 10, suggesting that this mix of doctors, psychologists, counsellors, nurses and other health workers found the experience very useful for their work with others.  For more on this see the last ten slides of the presentation "The alliance is crucial. What are the implications?"  

So 37 of us last night.  We'd eaten together and finally sat down in the group room a bit before 9.00pm.  Typically one or more people will have done the practical work of convening the group - sorting money, bookings, travel, and so on.  This job rotates.  The good friend, who had so generously taken on the convenor role for this year, went over a list of practicalities and then stepped down from "being in charge".  He received a large round of very appreciative applause.  We then went round the group, taking a minute or so each, to introduce ourselves and say a little about how we were feelings and maybe too, for some of us, a little about our hopes for the group.  Precious.  People were vulnerable, honest, spontaneous, funny, shy - all kinds of things.  It was heart-warming to hear many old-timers greeting newcomers.  One said something like "I'm really looking forward to connecting again with old friends, and I'm looking forward just as much to meeting people who I don't yet know".  There are 7 newcomers to the group.  Several of them, at this first round, voiced their appreciation of how open and welcoming people had been with them.

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