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Peer groups: Wiston autumn group – fourth morning

Yesterday I was away from the group for most of the day.  I started as usual - got up, wrote, met others, breakfast.  Then we came together briefly as the full 37 standing in a big circle outside the house on the gravel.  OK, we had already been the full 37 having breakfast, but coming together in the big circle helped me (and probably many others) feel part of the bigger group.  The circle was used for practical housekeeping around timings during the day and other issues, but there also seemed to be another important function in physically creating the holding circle of the full group.

We'd agreed to have breakfast ½ hour earlier than usual at 8.30am, so having the circle for twenty minutes or so at 9.15am still allowed our small support groups of 4 to meet for well over an hour up to 11.00am.  We'd agreed then to have a tea break and run the groups of 12-13 from 11.15 to lunch at 1.30.  Then a post-lunch period which people use to walk, talk, play, rest, and also for optional special interest groups - with the themes being offered by various people who wanted a chance to explore various issues more deeply.  We were then to meet again as the full group at 4.30.

Sadly I wasn't around for most of this schedule.  Shortly after the start of the small support groups of 4, a friend interrupted our group to say there was a phone call about my mother.  She's 96 and had taken ill.  Luckily she lives in Edinburgh, so I was able to drive back north and be with her and my wife in only a little over an hour.  Mum needed admitting to hospital.  She'd had a small stroke.  We're very close but - on top of that - coming from the group to be with her at such a hard time added something blessed.  With the ambulance men we called, with the nurses and the young doctor in casualty, there was a sense of friendliness, kindness, lightness.  Weird, but in all that concern, these were some of the most precious, tender hours I've spent with my mum.  I'm sure having come from the group helped and somehow it didn't seem surprising that, even in casualty, she was beginning to recover some of the loss of function that had initially been present in her leg.    

Something I've noticed many times over the years is how coming to these groups affects our relationships when we go back home.  It can deepen and enrich these relationships so much.  I remember a spiritual teacher at an ashram in India making the point powerfully when he said something like "When you go home, it's not important to tell others about what happened here and what you feel you have learned.  What is important is how you are with them.  If coming here has been of real value, you won't have to tell them in words.  They will see it in how you are with them, in how you've changed, in how you relate with them differently."  For a beautiful illustration of this, I have a friend who had been married for many years, and who had some difficulty negotiating with his wife to get time away from work and the family to come to his first Men's Group.  The next year I asked him if she had been equally reluctant to see him taking off for four days with a bunch of other men.  He smiled and said far from it, it had been her this time who had strongly encouraged him to come to a second group.  "Last time" she said "You came back as the man I married."  Alive, loving, energized, sensitive, open, I think these were some of the ways he might have gone back to her.  For me these post-group highs or depths usually last just a few days at most - qualitatively quite different though from the somewhat relaxed state I might come back in after an average weekend break.  These highs (or deeps) can help me reconnect to people who I've become distant from, sort out blocks or disagreements that previously felt too hard to get through, deepen and show my love and appreciation in relationships that are already going well. 

The high does dissipate fairly quickly, but this wave of deeper richer relating doesn't subside entirely and it nourishes increasingly established, longer term changes in all my relationships including, and maybe especially, in how well I can accept myself.  This was certainly evident when I did the brief survey of 46 health professionals who had been to these groups.  I asked them what they had found most useful.  I gave them a choice of five options (selected a bit haphazardly from research on beneficial aspects of group work) - learning more about emotions, learning more about oneself and how/why one reacts the way one does, feeling more comfortable & accepting of oneself, feeling more ready to be honest & direct with others, or some other area they were free to describe themselves.  Somewhat to my surprise, "Feeling more comfortable & accepting of oneself" was chosen as most useful, followed by "Learning more about oneself and how/why one reacts the way one does", then "Feeling more ready to be honest & direct with others" and fourthly "Learning more about emotions".

Once mum was safely settled in hospital, I drove the hour or so back down to Wiston.  I arrived just as the pre-supper full group meeting of 36 was finishing.  It seemed to have been quite a tough session.  We're damn good at working in small support groups and medium size working groups.  I think as a peer group culture we're still gaining experience in how best to use the full group of 30 plus people.  Do we mainly want the time for sorting organizational issues?  Are we wanting to deepen a sense of the holding full group?  Are we mainly checking in so that the constituent working groups (in this case of 12-13) don't feel alienated from each other?  Are we trying to do significant emotional work in the full group?  Probably a mix of all of these, although I personally would want to limit the amount of time in the four days we try to do significant emotional work in the full group.  I feel that usually it's a better environment to do this work in the small or medium size groups.  That was a major reason why I voted strongly for the group to split a few years ago when we had grown to 25 to 30 people and were trying to do the bulk of the emotional work in this larger size of group - like working in a "village" rather than a "family"!

As people came out of the full group and saw me they were hugely warm, welcoming and concerned.  Special.  Then supper and later a ceilidh - in its more original sense - with songs, music and stories.  There are some fine musicians and singers here.  Later, when the evening heated up with guitar, piano, drums and dancing, I headed for a bath, a chance to phone the hospital and bed.

I write the draft of this blog posting on the final morning - just a few more hours of the group left.  We're due to finish at lunch time.

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