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Peer groups: Cumbria autumn group – challenge & flowing on

I wrote in my last blog post how the group had begun to work more deeply/flowingly.  Yesterday was the final full day.  I've been dunking in the cold flood stream further upriver than during other groups.  It sure wakes me up to strip and hold firmly onto roots as I immerse completely and let my body be pushed out downstream like a floating ribbon of weed in the current.  Today there was someone else - a good friend - doing something similar further up the river.  Good to shout and greet each other, kind of brothers.  And then again breakfast, taken a little more quickly as I'd been doing so much already in the morning and had got up rather later.  The small group was more challenging.  As an old friend said, when we first became closer well over twenty years ago, that as a young teenager going out on his first dates with girls, he had a friend and they used to smell each others' breath before going out.  Checking that they would do OK, not put their dates off.  My friend said he missed that - not a physical smelling of breath any more, but more a psychological smelling of breath, commenting on interpersonal style, giving feedback on how we felt we were each coming across.  Both appreciating and also sharing what we - as observers, as friends - were finding difficult.  And this is partly what we did in the small group.  At the end someone said how very valuable they had found it, how with their partner at home there was usually nobody to challenge or witness how he acted once he got into an argument.  Here, when he got into a similar emotional place, started to act in the same way, he had been challenged over what was happening and had found it so very helpful - such an important set of insights to take away.  It's the same for me - I'm so much more hugely open to challenging feedback from somebody who knows and appreciates and loves me, than from some comparative stranger.  I'm much more likely to take what's said from the heart and look at what I feel about it and what I want to do about it.  I was challenged in the Spring Mixed Group and was challenged again now about my use of words, about how what I said could sometimes be  interpreted in ways that seemed intrusive and unhelpful.  Of course this will happen however careful I am.  If I keep coming in close to people I will sometimes step on their toes.  But this feedback from a couple of old, close friends was valuable and important for me to listen to.

Then a break before the full group.  And right at the start of the full group someone spoke up saying that they and their small group felt upset about an interaction with another small group over who would get a more comfortable room to work in.  Juice.  Of course we all reacted in different ways internally.  I was brought up in a family where we hardly ever raised our voices, let alone assertively stated our unhappiness about anything.  I can remember in my early days of groupwork sometimes feeling a bit embarrassed to witness disagreement between other group members - or feeling a bit anxious when emotions ran high that people would get hurt.  I guess I came from a place where "aggro" didn't happen much at all in my family of origin, and in the school playground it was more dog eat dog and the strongest or verbally cleverest or most dominant got their way.  Such a good learning to see and explore different ways of raising hurt feelings and working them through.  Great.  I've said before that coming to these groups seems a bit like piling everyone into a pebble polisher - one of those jewellers' machines that turns and shakes and vibrates the pebbles for days on end, smoothing off their rough edges in a way that would probably be achieved by the sea only over decades.  This group seems similar - bumping up against each other and different situations and circumstances.  Some quite mundane like how do we clean the dishes - do we not do our share, do we rush around endlessly being hyper-helpful, how does it feel to us?  There are so many of these pebble-bumping experiences both in and out of the formal group time.  Gradually many of our rough edges and sore places will get banged.  Then if we have the guts and trust to raise the issues that have been triggered it's very often possible to move forward, to process and move on - maybe in ways that could take decades, or all of our lives, if we waited for the action of the day-to-day sea of our everyday experiences.

So a good deal of exploring - both the issue of what had been agreed about how small group rooms were shared out, and issues about what is fair, about assertiveness, about unkindness - rich.  Eventually I found myself losing focus and interest.  As the "Experiencing scale" suggests, it's usually more helpful to limit the amount of group time spent discussing generalities - and we had moved into more general comments about these factors.  I asked whether we could consider more how we are here with each other in the group rather than maybe focusing so much on how assertive or submissive, articulate or quiet, firm or accommodating we are outside the group.  Somebody bravely stepped forward and selected who they felt - including themselves - were the quieter, less heard, members of the group.  These people then talked in the centre about how they felt being pulled out in this way.  They linked arms in an outward-facing circle and rotated so they could look one-at-a-time at the faces of those who are maybe more likely to express how they're feeling and what they want.  It's a set of issues that affect us all.  Of course power, dominance, kindness, fairness, competition, honesty - all of this and more comes up amongst eighteen men living together for four days.  Great to look at it a bit.

And lunch and then walking with my dear son and an old friend in a loop along farm tracks and little country roads.  Good time to talk when we're all loosened up by three days in the group.  Open and warm and speaking about issues in our lives generally that have been brought up by what has been happening in the group.  Fabulous.  My own father was a very fine man, but to talk in anything like this way was not a place we ever got to.  This is profoundly precious to me - not just this conversation as we walked, but the whole experience of sharing these four days together.

We met again as a full group a little earlier than usual - at 5.00pm.  Somebody had asked for time to, in some kind of symbolic way, let go of old pain and upset about children and lack of children and a marriage that had gone wrong.  He had written letters to a couple of the people involved and now read them out in front of the group before consigning them to the flames of a fire we'd made.  Others also started to speak, one after the other, about regrets, old pains, issues of shame or grief or gratitude.  We listened.  We sang.  The last of the burning wood was tipped into the river and we watched it quench and sweep away in the current.  Then back to the main group room.  Someone "jumped in" pretty quickly saying he wanted time and help.  Anger eating him up about a broken marriage.  Wanting to move to a place of forgiveness but knowing that was something he just couldn't reach at the moment.  It was suggested that he select members of the group to play the parts of his ex-wife and other people involved.  He asked me if I would help him with the process. 

I find it such a privilege, and potentially hugely powerful, to work on processing major difficulties in this kind of group environment.  There are similarities and differences with working on the same kinds of issues in a one-to-one setting.  One-to-one I would make sure that I had gathered much more information before starting into the emotional processing work.  In the groups I run at home, I also have this information and connection from one-to-one work with all the group members.  In some ways this is ideal, as the one-to-one therapy enriches the group work and, actually, what emerges and is triggered in the group routinely enriches the work I'm doing one-to-one.  Far from keeping the two therapies separate, at home as a therapist, I strongly encourage group participants to see me before the start of the group, during the group and again sometime towards the end of the group.  It helps both enrich the individual therapy and also helps highlight issues that might be of particular personal value to them that they can work on in the group.

Here, in this group, there are a bunch of differences.  Obviously I'm not "the therapist" although my skills and experience - and others' skills and experience - are here to be used.  Resources for the group.  I guess it's like any community - of monks, of villagers, of sailors on a boat - we have some idea of each other's areas of strength and weakness.  We learn from and help each other.  So working together on this "psychodrama", good.  Stuttering at times.  Helped by others' suggestions and input, but not drowned by "too many cooks".  Extended processing in this therapeutic cooking pot of honesty and care and acceptance that we have fashioned together.  And coming through.  Expressing strong held feelings.  Changing inside.  Coming to a place of calmness and, for now, completion.  And then taking time for the whole group to pair and talk about what this had triggered, what it had brought up, for each of us individually.  Good work ... kind of sacred work.

And a feast of a supper, lovingly prepared.  And talking deeply over and after the meal.  And then dancing for those that wanted.  I totally love free, expressive, total dancing.  Moving and threading and prancing and grunting to the music of Angelique Kidjo's "Oremi".  Great.  Life in the old dog yet, as young and older moved like some kind of tribe.  And then to bed and sleeping deeply.  And up again to write this and meditate and head out to the stream before the last morning of the group .


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