Last updated on 27th March 2011
Yesterday I wrote about arriving for this Men's Group in Cumbria. It's the second morning. Groups - particularly these residential interpersonal groups - seem a bit like rivers to me. They move on inexorably, often full of surprises. I may have some guesses as to how a group will evolve or what will happen next, but so regularly I come round the next bend of the river and where I expected rapids, there is a deep smooth-flowing straight section - or where I thought all would be beautiful and calm, the river plunges into a gorge and it feels like I'm struggling to keep my vision clear in the emotional spray.
I guess it's no surprise the river analogy comes up so readily for this group. We're staying in an old converted water mill and, this November, the mill stream is in full spate. I don't remember seeing it so full over all my years of coming here. In a way though - at the moment - it's an inverse image of this group. The quiet, peaceful mill stream is raging and showing how powerful it can become, while the group feels to me as if it is slipping forward like a river that has half dried up in summer heat.
There were certainly good, welcome things that happened yesterday. After a mix of yoga, meditation, walking, very careful holding-onto-roots dunking in the stream, breakfast-eating, greeting, talking, we began with a brief full group "non-verbal check-in". The whole group hadn't been able to sit down together on the first evening because of late arrivals from delayed trains. There had been an agreement that, before starting in the small support groups, we would meet in the full group. To try to keep it brief, the hullo-this-is-me-and-how-I'm-feeling-right-now check-in's were kept non-verbal. Mm ... good. Quite challenging to step forward into the centre of this group of 18 and move in whatever way one wanted to. It did seem to give me a good snapshot of how each person was - in all our vulnerability, aliveness, uniqueness.
Then on from there into small groups for about an hour or so. Checking in verbally now. Arriving. Catching up with how the other four people in the group are doing at the moment and in our lives more generally. Then a tea break before moving into the full group. Exploring, feeling our way in. One of the main themes was fathers and sons. Memories and regrets and appreciations about our own fathers, and feelings too about our relationships with our sons. It's a funny old split in this group. Eleven of us are in our fifties or older and we all have children. Seven of us are in our thirties or younger and none have children. I don't think there's anyone here in their forties, so there feels a bit of an "age divide". Towards the end of the morning we made this more explicit by setting up a "fish bowl", where initially the seven younger men sat in a circle in the middle of the group room and talked while the eleven older guys sat round the edges and kept their mouths shut. Then we swapped over with the older eleven talking in the inner circle while being watched and listened to by the seven younger guys. It's so often a good exercise to do. In my experience it really helps me to observe and hear what those in the fish bowl are feeling and expressing. Very privileged, because it's rare to have people speak with as much honesty as typically occurs here. And for me, of course, even more privileged because my son is one of the younger men and it's extraordinary and moving to be here with him and experience more fully aspects of who he is.
Then lunch and afterwards, I and several others get down to some serious vegetable chopping. We've volunteered to prepare this evening's supper. It's going to be Mediterranean roasted vegetables with cous-cous, Haloumi cheese and Harissa sauce. Then it's mango fool and toasted almond flakes - good restaurant or what?! Actually the cooking here is usually delicious and preparing food for each other with generosity and fun is all part of what the group's about. After the food preparation there's still time to walk in the gathering twilight and I end up striding back to the mill along little country lanes with a torch in my hand to warn off passing cars.
And then the late afternoon group. The room is warm and I'm feeling increasingly frustrated - wanting more to happen or wanting to feel more powerfully engaged. It's tricky this. I'm sure part of it is simply that I'm so busy in my work and lifestyle back up Edinburgh. When the bicycle of my life stops and is lifted off its usual ground, the wheels just keep on spinning. I can sit in the group - which often starts with long silences - and I notice myself becoming impatient. A fair slice of this is me - my own inner motor still rumbling away rather than really being in tune with how this group river is flowing. And a fair slice of this is the stage of the group. We're eighteen people. It's often not easy to start to speak and be in the group spotlight - especially when there's some expectation that what's said should be very authentic and meaningful. God, no pressure! And at this "forming" stage of the group we are feeling our way in. We are still "arriving".
But despite understanding this, I'm still frustrated and impatient. If I was running this group, I would almost certainly be splitting us into smaller two's, three's or four's to break up what I feel is partly stage fright and tightness. Small group exercises like "How am I feeling being here this afternoon?" or "How is it for me in this full group?" or even just "Where am I at nearly a day into this group?" are all often good ways of helping people to open up and start feeling more engaged. But I'm not running this group. It's a peer group. Sometimes it's fine for me to suggest exercises (as I did with the fish bowl this morning) or come in in other somewhat "group facilitator" ways, but I don't want to do this much. I don't think it's good for me or for the group. It's something I struggle with - work with - a fair amount in these peer groups. How can I best, moment-to-moment, ride the horse of my power, my experience in this group and in this kind of work. How can I be me, not holding back, but also not "oppressing" others. I quite often feel this challenge is a bit like trying to ride a big horse down the centre of a track. One ditch I can slip into is using my power to push others or dominate in ways that aren't really sensitive and aren't really particularly helpful. The other ditch is not using my power & experience, emasculating myself, and holding back in ways that are also unhelpful for myself and for the group. It's a good challenge - a good challenge to dance with. As with so much that happens in these interpersonal groups, it's also very much a challenge in my work and in my life more generally. I've talked of this before and I do like the old "Four enemies on the path of a man of knowledge" Carlos Castaneda story.
So here I am at the start of the second day of the group. Feeling frustrated and impatient. So many choices for what to do with this feeling. Write about it - either here on more "therapeutically" a la Jamie Pennebaker, meditate/do yoga and allow the tightness simply to ebb away, chat to friends about it over breakfast and see the feelings transmute, push the group to try to move it forward faster, work with the my frustration in the limelight of the group expressing how pissed off I feel. All fine to do ... and actually there's a small support group meeting before the full group and that's almost certainly going to shift how I'm feeling at least a bit. But selecting what emotional self-management "tool" one's going to use is an interesting question. My sense is that the right tool is the one that best serves the needs of what else is going on at the time. If I was distractingly frustrated and pissed off going into a morning's one-to-one work with clients then forms of meditation or yoga or writing or other ways of internally settling would make a lot of sense. In fact simply switching focus to trying to help others with their problems and distress would probably quickly change my internal state anyway. However here in the group, these inner states are partly what the group's about. Going away to deal with them on my own can sometimes impoverish the group. Strong feelings are fuel for the group fire - and right now this group could probably do with more fuel.
And for tomorrow's post click here ...