the healing power of groups

The culture around us is pretty dysfunctional.  So more and more for me, groups are the treatment of choice for many issues—a place to build and heal in a group culture that supports one’s growth.   In a group, people are there for a common purpose, which is to grow beyond where they are now and the problems they bring to group.  In a group, they can see that what they bring is reflected in everyone else.  Anxiety and depression are not the special problems of a few people, they are part of the human condition. Depression is a physiological state and usually it is related to other things— sadness, loss, despair, loneliness; and mostly those things are what everyone feels at some time or another.  Depression particularly is correlated with lack of social connection, isolation.  And what happens in a group?  Lots of connection. 

My personal experience of the power of group was attending a Gestalt workshop at the Cleveland Gestalt Institute.  I was going through the end of a relationship.  A woman also going through the end of her relationship  volunteered to do some work.  She said her goodbyes to her spouse in a Gestalt “empty chair” exercise that helped her release the feelings she was holding. I, sitting in the circle watching her, was working through those same feelings with her and  through her.

As a group leader, I remember one woman in particular doing some significant work. It may also have been about ending a relationship.  As she worked through her feelings, she began to sob and as she felt the support of the group through touch and presence, she sobbed even more.  Afterwards, she felt released from the feelings and the support of the group increased the power of the release. She was smiling, relaxed—at peace.

Anyone who has meditated, with others, has felt the power of the group presence, as one has settled into stillness and the silence.  On a cognitive level, we may think of ourselves as all separate, but on a physical and energetic level, we are synchronizing with each other, like waves on a lake   As a group facilitator leading meditation, I have actually noticed, when a group gets to a place of deep peace together, many people’s breathing does appear to be in rhythm. There is physical harmony within the room.

In a  therapy group, a person becomes more than the problems they bring to group.  They can become a support to another, a teller of a story of a similar experience, an intimate sharer of similar feelings; and all of this moves them beyond themselves and the problem they brought to group. And moving beyond one’s current self into a larger self is growth. As we grow beyond our old self, our ego, and make connections with others, we settle into the ground of spiritual growth—that vague ambiguous word that gets tossed around. 

Spirituality, if I have to define it, is growing into a larger self more  identified both with one’s deepest self, the self that is a part of everything else, and a growing identification with the world, through greater connections with others.  So groups can be,  with the right focus, a tool for growth, a tool for learning to live more fully in the  moment, and tool for connecting and giving of oneself to others.  And these are the tools that help heal people’s lives and hopefully the larger world, which is in sad need of healing.

Finding the health inside us

Disease is an old concept and and as a concept can lead us astray. Sometimes disease is an old friend.  In conversation with a chiropractor friend, she talked about how functional medicine wants to trace the problems back to the root, rather than focusing on the symptoms. 

Two stories demonstrate looking past the symptoms to the roots.  My bioenergetic trainer told a story about getting diagnosed with borderline hypertension, and was surprised considering her history of practicing bioenergetics and self-care. She had tried some things, including medication, and they hadn’t worked.  As I remember the story, she went to Dr Alexander Lower, founder of bioenergetics, and he talked to her and had her take some bioenergetic positions. He told her that when she stood, she leaned forward on the balls of her feet, tensing her calf muscles.  She took this observation with her and worked on standing in a more feet grounded position and the hypertension cleared up. 

Another story involved a violinist and Fritz Perls, founder of gestalt therapy.  A famous violinist had developed a problem where the hand that held his violin cramped up during playing, keeping him from finishing pieces. He had gone to various psychiatrists with no result and eventually went to Perls. As I remember the story,  Perls had him play the violin for him and immediately saw what was going on.  As he played he brought his foot back behind the other foot  which cause increased tension in the that foot and slowly worked its way up his body until his hand cramped up.  Perls worked with him applying awareness to his stance and the problem ceased. 

Sometimes we get so focused on a particular aspect or way of looking at a problem that we miss the wider perspective.  Often, the wider perspective is the body, either via food, or behavior, or held tension.  When I worked in the field of chronic pain, the physiatrist I worked with talked about how a person focusing their attention on the pain reinforces the pain, sending more attention and signals through the nervous system.  This over time increases the pain.

Sometimes the disease becomes a friend. People focus so much attention on a problem or an aspect of a problem that it is all they see.   They have it so long it becomes like a ‘frienemy.”   We need to fix “the anxiety,”” the depression,”” the relationship problem,”  but we are used to having it around.

My philosophy drawing from my experience with zen and buddhism shifted my perspective.   In zen, there is the idea of buddha nature, or intrinsically awake and healthy awareness inside each person.  This translates into the idea of basic health, or “basic sanity” as Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche put it. My belief, reinforced by my training in hypnosis,  is that inside each person is the wisdom, experience, knowledge to resolve their problem if it is drawn out of them.  This means that in working with people,  our focus is on the natural health, wisdom and healing capacities that we have inside us. 

So let us focus on attending to basic or natural health as the foundation of personal change.  Let us open the therapy process to wider area of focus. This shifts the perspective to the whole person and their relationships with others, with the world. We can begin with basic health   People can to do physical things to be well—to eat well, exercise, and sleep.  This includes  energy practices or methods, such as bioenergetics, qi gong, or  acupuncture,  to promote a free flow of energy in the body.  Cultivating basic awareness, mindfulness,  leads to a sense of themselves as a whole and interconnected with the people and life around them. 

Finally community, having a healthy social support network, is the matrix, the ground of change.    Two women who I treated with chronic pain seem a good illustration of this point. Regularly their pain was often in the 7-8/10 level when the came in Monday mornings. One weekend, both of their husbands went away for the weekend.  On Monday, both reported their pain down at the 2-4 level. 

Supportive relationships and community, or lack there of, can be the crucial piece  in helping a person move beyond their problems, and a group can be that community, those relationships.

Next up:  The healing power of groups