A way of working in men's groups By Peter Bernhardt, MFT Being a member of a men's group is a formative experience. It's a chance to grow new parts of yourself and share this process with other men who have also made a commitment to explore themselves. The synergy of men's voices builds over time to take on the major themes of their lives: The want to be accepted and the fear of not belonging; the challenge of developing an honest, authentic voice; the work to get out of one's head and live more fully alive in the body and in the present moment; taking up one's own authority in relationships, in work, and in the creative or generative process; opening to the polarities of intimacy and individuation. The want to access the wisdom in oneself and in others. In my groups I offer a structure, a form, that is like a martial art: taking up the form provided gives the group a platform to begin to explore themselves in a solid, secure, rigorous and compassionate way: • Getting Centered Centering is one of the most powerful forms of practice we can bring into our lives. Centering connects us to our life energy, our core self, a place we are often cut off from. Becoming centered is a powerful path toward self-knowledge and the ability to show up for oneself. • Getting Present Talking about being present and actually learning how to do it are two different things. Once you have the map, you can begin to learn to get present and stay there for longer and longer periods. Without being in the present, we have no access to the edge of the unknown, that place of all authentic learning and experience. Without the edge of the unknown being available to us our lives are greatly constricted. • Listening to Others for Resonance Most conversations lack resonance. We usually are just waiting for the other to stop so we can bring our bit. By training to listen for resonance in what others are saying, we can then join them where they are. When we do that, something very powerful happens: we create a loop, a field of emotion or energy, where change begins to happen through the amplification and development our mutually shared experience. • Supporting Differences in Self and Other Of course we are not just similar, we also hold differences, and these differences are also crucial voices in the life of a group. Many men know the experience of being scapegoated for their differences, and in group our differences are explored and supported. Men are not left alone feeling alienated or wrong or shamed- enough of that! • Learning about the life of a group as an organism or system with phases of development. All important relationships in our lives go through phases of development, and these are not always easy! In this group you will learn ways of seeing how the group has a life of it's own ruled by system dynamics bigger than any one member. This lesson is extremely valuable for see other contextsour primary relationships, our work relationship, and even our relationship with ourselves. Emerging Themes in Men's Groups Taking up membership in a group The process of taking up membership in a group is a great opportunity for learning. Being a member means learning how to bring yourself in, to influence the group so that what matters to you can get worked in the group. This is a challenging task. Most of us worry about not being accepted or fear being attacked if we are ourselves. The group structure is there to prevent these kinds of painful experiences that many people have had in groups. Learning to become more authentic and to overcome worry, passivity, and compliance is challenging, but is made easier in that you wont be working alone- the way to tackle these things is to find the resonance for our human struggle with the other members of the group. By learning how we take up membership in a group, group members will learn how they take up membership in other systems in their lives: primary relationships, parenting, work, and so on. Taking up inner authority Learning about taking up membership leads to a primary theme in our lives, the theme of taking up our own inner authority. What I call the "Authority Issue" is the extended life challenge to come from our own inner knowing and to bring it functionally into the relationship in our lives. This means over time, exploring the things that get in the way of taking up our authority: • Worry, rumination and speculation, telling ourselves scary stories; • Self-attack, self-judgment, prohibitions • Difficulty managing frustration • Going One-Down or One-Up in relation to external authority figures • Getting stuck in defiance or compliance As we work these issues in the group, men come to see the universal struggle they are in in relation to authority and by working together, get energized to take risks and work old patterns. A note on anger and safety in groups Anger presents us humans with a serious challenge. Anger is the source of much suffering when acted upon, and yet is also the source of our life energy and sometimes of essential truth. A task for any man and any men's group is to find a good relationship to anger. The key is to create an environment where anger can be both contained and explored and made OK, without it being acted on in a way that hurts others. It is also part of the work to make finer and finer discriminations: how is frustration different from irritation, how is outrage different from anger? Also, anger can be a way of avoiding fear or grief, or it can reflect issues of power and control. Anger that is blocked can become a source of depression and despair. Most men have a pretty terrible and frightening history with the anger, and it is often what makes many men not want to be in groups: they may have a history of physical or verbal abuse from parents, siblings, peer groups, teachers, bosses and so on. They fear being attacked, judged, teased, shamed, or put down. Know that I as group leader interrupt any expression of anger I see that is unuseful for the group or potentially hurtful. But I do so with compassion knowing that we have all been there, and I help the group to see the dynamics that tend to trigger these potentially painful interactions. A major function of a group leader and of the structures I use to lead a group is to make the group a safe place where we feel free to explore. If we are afraid, we can't explore! This is not an encounter group! Many people have the old image of the encounter group when they think of a group, where people "confront" each other with the "truth". This is not how I lead groups! Our safety net in part is that we build our group by looking for resonance, for what is similar in each other rather than focusing on the differences. This vectors the group communication. toward a more positive climate. Closeness and Autonomy: Managing intimacy in relationships Men long for more connection and closeness. They want more community, more satisfying intimacy and sex. Many men feel isolated, alone, unmet. But partly through disappointing experiences in the past, men don't often trust that they will be met with care, attunement or respect. And intimacy triggers an equally important longing, which is to feel autonomous, strong and independent. The work in a men's group is to explore the relationship between the longing for connection and building a reliable trust, as well as making space for the impulse toward autonomy. Along the way we observe some of the pitfalls and stuck places that many men experience: Mistrust, despair, hopelessness. Anger at intrusion or feeling suffocated, trapped or feeling stuffed with anther's projections or needs. Again, what makes this hard work manageable is that you are not alone with these themes, that the group will build a ship together to work these challenging areas of the human experience. Tapping Emergent Wisdom in the Group I have found that men long for authentic wisdom and understanding. By learning to join others through resonance, you will create a dynamic system with emergent properties: you will discover emergent feelings and inner wisdom in yourself and other group members that will surprise you and inform your lives. You will unleash the positive power of groups to create change. You will also notice the pull in groups to be dysfunctional and through exploring that pull, strengthen your capacity to impact the groups and relationship in your life in a positive direction. About my journey Even as a boy, I was struck by the power of groups, for both good and ill. Witnessing first hand the efforts in the 60's and beyond to create community has been a formative experience for me. I became passionate about to how to build functional community- lively and sustainable. It's not easy, I've discovered, as have many others. But there is hope. For me, the discovery of the work of Yvonne Agazarian, who's work mapping the life of groups spans 50 years, has being the most exciting and encouraging. 10 years of training later, the hope remains, and I believe that the structures provided in her work offers great hope for our group and cultural life. Yvonne's work is all about learning to look at groups as living human systems, that in all their complexity have understandable dynamics and phases.