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An online interpersonal support group stirs up a mix of feelings


            "Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel."

"This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man."         Both quotations by Polonius in Shakespeare's "Hamlet"

I got together with a bunch of old friends yesterday evening ... eight of us talking online for over two hours.  It's a long time since we last all sat down together.  Now we're roughly 70 years old ... some a bit more than this, some a bit less.  It's COVID time.  We're due to connect again in five weeks.  What are the chances of one or more of us catching the coronavirus before that?  What are the chances that any infection could go badly?  As one of us commented last night "I've never felt death 'just over the fence' like this before."

I was aware of all kinds of feelings during and since our meeting.  The clearest afterwards ... and it continues this morning ... was a sense of affection, warmth, tenderness.  And, in some ways, I find this surprising.  I was aware of a bunch of other, more difficult feelings as well during the evening ... competitiveness, judgement, irritation, distance, shyness, uncertainty.  Different ways of being human!  And there was also amusement, inspiration, enjoyment, affection, familiarity, connection, kindness, support, love.

So why am I taking the time to feel into this, to look at it, to learn from it?  Well, in many ways it was a pretty unusual meeting.  Kind of archetypal.  I've known some of these people for about fifty years and all for at least decades.  Seven of the eight of us are medical doctors.  We go back for so long together, but we have only met occasionally over the years ... some of us more often than others.  Yesterday evening was the first time we've all been together for quite some time.  All of us have done a good deal of group work together over our lives ... both Men's Groups and Mixed Groups ... here, for example, is a description of a four day residential from a decade ago.  So we're kind of 'battle hardened' ... I mean we're well used to talking together in deeply honest, vulnerable, courageous ways.

And it was new last night.  We were online, logging in from all around the UK, all in a sense quietened, maybe made more reflective by the COVID lockdown.  For me ... in part ... there was some sense of teenagers getting together on a street corner, jostling a little, checking out each other's fashion brands, boasting a little maybe, teasing, tentative, dropping into old interpersonal patterns.  Who are the leaders here?  Is this even a valid question?  Who is particularly respected?  Am I accepted?  All those dominance/competitive story lines ... and, as a group of doctors, we probably all have been good at competing (at least at times in our lives).

And alongside that, entwined with it - another set of themes in the music - tenderness, concern for each other, amusement, celebration, sharing of wisdom, support, kindness, appreciation.  So this whole 'comrades together' affiliation-system level felt another part of what was happening.

And as I dip down into this experience, these two hours we shared, I feel a bit like a kid dipping a net into a pool.  I can bring up such a varied catch ... insights, amusements, lessons, celebrations.  And I'll pick out three, because these are linked to stronger internal emotional responses ... usually a good indication of how much issues are 'personally important'.  So there's something about the mixed blessing of my familiarity & comfort in a care-giving role; something about how we're all like trees or pieces of music and direct comparisons between us are foolish & likely to be unhelpful; and thirdly something about going beyond ... beyond places of compassion, beyond places of beauty or gratitude or suffering.

So first, what's the lesson about the mixed blessing of my familiarity & comfort in a care-giving role?  Well, we took a pee break after an hour or so of our meeting (hey, we are seventy-something year old guys!).  And I noticed some discomfort with how I'd been feeling in the group, and I found myself internally trying to shift into a place of compassion, of loving-kindness for all of us.  And that was fine, to an extent ... but also, on reflection, it was partly an attempt to escape from the sense of discomfort, of comparison, of am-I-liked-and-appreciated here?  And this is OK, but there was some avoidance in that internal movement to compassion, a kind of reaching for the safety of what can sometimes be a slightly one-up, distanced position ... this familiar 'care-giving' place.  And I celebrate it too.  Care-giving is the heart of what I do and an absolutely central theme of my life.  Helpful though to notice some potential flecks of shadow in the light of this kindness.  I'd been writing a poem that morning and I shared it ... "That ain't working!" ... and noticing my motivations, the innocence & vulnerability of 'just sharing', as well as the noisy schoolboy wish to have my voice heard, as well as a taste of self-justification ... 'this is what I stand for and I'm the one who's right'! 

Bless!  And I believe, in these interpersonal groups, an important part of what we're doing is an exercise in emotional intelligence.  Our ability to identify what we're feeling, describe it, understand it, regulate it and use it ... so important for the quality of our relationships, for our psychological ... and even our physical ... health.  If you'd like to know how you're doing here, maybe try taking this quick snapshot assessment!   And so often, in this interpersonal group environment, an excellent path to choose is highlighted by the reminder "What's in the way is the way".  A good guidepost is to step forward to share ourselves ... emotionally naked, vulnerable, open-handed (while assuming that all involved have useful things they can learn and nobody is completely right or completely wrong).  And in this group, this stepping forward would almost certainly have been a better way to have taken ... for me and for others ... than escaping into compassion.  Easier said than done, but a good lesson.  And of course, this can powerfully build a sense of emotional closeness ... which is at the heart of deeper relationships.  And, for psychotherapists & counsellors (and all probably in caring roles), the developing ability to work in tricky interpersonal areas is at the heart of being more effective in our ability to help others ... see, for example "Truly excellent therapists have grace under interpersonal pressure" or even more directly "Using involvement in group discussions for (self-) assessment and learning".

And the second lesson I want to pay attention to is the sense that all of us in this group are a bit like trees or pieces of music and direct comparisons between us are foolish & likely to be unhelpful.  Even brief reflection highlights this as obvious.  Eight different people in the group.  Eight different genetic make-ups, eight cultural & family backgrounds, eight sets of experiences over the course of our lives, eight different patterns of interests, strengths & challenges that we are faced with now.  We are like a wood of different kinds of tree.  Wonderful for the oak to look at & appreciate the ash, the elm to wonder at the beech, the holly to smile at the lime.  Stupid to try to be each other or to expect others to be the same as ourselves.  Thank heavens for that ... that we're not some kind of forestry planted monoculture!  Yes "A friend is someone who sees the potential in you and helps you to live it" ... but your potential not theirs.  And a deep favourite saying of mine, quoting Martin Buber "Before his death, Rabbi Zusya said 'In the coming world, they will not ask me: 'Why were you not Moses?'  They will ask me: 'Why were you not Zusya?'"  ... why did you not become what only you could become?!  Now this is the challenge we can help each other with.

And now it's a couple of days later ... lying in bed this morning listening to such a rich dawn chorus, my tongue sore from a chipped tooth that isn't likely to be fixed by a dentist any time soon.  I said I'd pick out three 'insights, lessons, amusements, celebrations' from our evening together.  I've talked about the mixed blessing of my familiarity & comfort in a care-giving role and also how we're all like trees or pieces of music and direct comparisons between us are foolish & likely to be unhelpful.  The third area I wanted to touch on is something about going beyond ... beyond places of compassion, beyond places of beauty or gratitude or suffering.  I took eight psilocybin psychedelic trips last year ... ranging from very low dose to very high.  I've written extensively about this area and a group of us up here in Scotland are currently forming a helping professionals special interest group focusing on psychedelics' therapeutic potential.  But psychedelics also have much to offer people who aren't currently struggling with distress - see, for example, last year's paper "Psychedelics and potential benefits in 'healthy normals': a review of the literaturewith its comment "Psychedelics have been found to modulate neuroplasticity, and usage in a supportive setting can result in enduring increases in traits such as well-being, life satisfaction, life meaning, mindfulness, and a variety of measures associated with prosocial behaviors and healthy psychological functioning ... Special attention is given to the capacity of psychedelics to increase measures of nature relatedness in an enduring sense, which is being correlated with a broad range of measures of psychological well-being as well as a key predictor of pro-environmental awareness and behavior. The effects of particular classical psychedelic compounds on healthy people are discussed, with special attention given to the mystical-type experiences occasioned by high doses of psychedelics, which appear to be an important mediator of long-term benefits and psychotherapeutic gains."

I have meditated regularly for fifty years, been to many retreats, and spent chunks of time in ashrams, monasteries & out in nature.  However the deepest spiritual experiences of my life were last year taking psilocybin.  Profound, dissolving, awe-inspiring, huge.  I've shifted to meditating kneeling rather than sitting cross-legged ever since the first of these trips just over a year ago ... it's something about humility.  Here is a description of the deepest of the trips.  Friends have asked me "What effect have these experiences had on you?".  And a major effect is to make me a better therapist for people who want to explore the potential of psychedelics to help their own healing.  But more personally it feels like these experiences have opened me more.  It's as if I've been living my life in an apartment .. a rather lovely apartment, but still very much enclosed by the four walls of my personal ego.  The psychedelic experiences have taken me out into the countryside itself, merged 'me' with it.  And even now, back in the apartment, windows that were closed are now open.  And this affects me with others.  I can slip into a sense of no-separation more easily than I ever could before.  Such a deep blessing.  Such a deep gratitude.

And such deep gratitude too for our evening together earlier this week.  The eight of us ... old friends, old companions.  Here, with COVID-19, in the shadow of death together.  What a gift it has been ... and hopefully will continue to be for some while! ... to have walked beside each other through the decades. 



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