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Personal Growth And Insight

by Ginny Fraser(more info)

listed in personal growth, originally published in issue 37 - February 1999

In 1985 I got involved with a personal development seminar company called Insight, which has become a very important part of my life. So much so that I now travel around the world facilitating in the Insight seminar, and I thank God for the day my friend coerced me through the door for my first seminar.


The idea of coming together with a large group of others to do what has been variously called "consciousness work", "personal development" and "transpersonal growth" began in earnest in the sixties with the so-called "encounter groups" that sprang up on University campuses in California.

Esalen, a centre for personal and spiritual growth in Big Sur, California, was a focal point for teaching and research in the transpersonal field, and many of those at the leading edge in this field studied, taught and worked there – such as Virginia Satir, Fritz Perls, Ida Rolf. Consciousness work gained in popularity, with the late sixties and seventies spawning a number of large-group seminar organisations like Mind Dynamics, Silva Mind Control, Lifespring, Est, Insight and Loving Relationships Training (LRT).

Although not all of these organisations exist anymore, Insight has continued over the years, and has remained particularly successful in London. Its purpose is to assist people in discovering their true selves, their creativity and their loving so they can enjoy more satisfying lives.

The entry-level seminar usually consists of a large group of around 80 people and runs over four evenings and a full weekend. It is extremely practical – there is not a incense burner or crystal in sight – yet regularly people who participate in the courses claim to have had marked improvements in their physical health as a result.

Better health is certainly not a benefit that the large group personal development courses would advertise – Insight certainly doesn't, and Landmark Education which puts on the Forum training (designed by Werner Erhard, founder of Est), doesn't make that claim either, with spokesman, Mark Kamin stating, "There are people who have taken the Forum and said that taking it helped them deal to deal emotionally in a positive way with medical problems, though there is no evidence that it helps them get well from medical conditions." Even Brandon Bays, a relative newcomer to the field of large-group process, while advertising her own healing from a large 'tumour' does not suggest that such physical healing can be possible for her workshop participants, with her most dramatic claim for her workshop, The Journey, being 'let go of years of emotional and physical baggage'.

Yet people keep on reporting actual, measurable physical changes through participation in large group processes.

Two years ago, the issue of the connection between mind and body became a lot more pressing for me personally as I discovered I had secondary melanoma – and suddenly I was faced with really trying to apply the teachings in this incredibly significant area of my own life. My first response was total rebellion. When smug, well-meaning personal growth junkies would tell me that resentment causes cancer and did I know how I created my illness, I wanted to batter them! And it certainly didn't help me in my struggle to understand why I did have cancer. I realised then how sensitive we are when we are ill, and how destructive such approaches can be if used without awareness – however well-intentioned they are. As I discovered, most of us swing between two extremes in terms of personal responsibility – either, it's totally their fault, or it's totally my fault. And being able to say, without any trace of self-blame, "Yes, I think that x, y and z probably contributed to the illness" was a place it took me a long time to get to. Eighteen months on the Gerson therapy and much self-examination down the line, I am well and grateful for all this illness has taught me, in particular, the significance of the connection between my mind and my body.

Yet I am acutely aware of the challenge in writing this article which is how to describe something which does occur without creating a false sense of hope or seeming to offer a 'cure' to anyone facing serious health problems. I want to be absolutely clear in this – I am not advocating an Insight seminar, or The Forum, or The Journey or the Life Training as places where sick people can come for healing. It seems that the stage we are at in our understanding of the mind-body connection is that the two are absolutely connected (and scientifically proven through the study of psychoneuroimmunology), but we don't yet fully know why one person heals and another doesn't. We all know people who have had the op, carried on eating junk food, carried on with their depression and negativity and recovered from their illness, whilst the most beautiful, spiritually aware person works their process with devotion and loving and still dies. New Age philosopher, Ken Wilbur's wife, Treya, whose story is so movingly documented in Grace and Grit being a great example of this.

So the truth is, we still have so much to learn. Yet from our position in the kindergarten class of how our minds affect our bodies, there are several stories that cannot be ignored.

Case Study 1

Richard Williams is a 48 year old artist. He arrived at the Insight training with a heavy heart – he was married, with children, been doing the same job for twenty years and was wondering what to do with his life. He was also experiencing constant physical pain in his foot and ankle that had become a part of his life. He had polio as a child, which left him with weakness legs, and a tendency to walk on the outside of his foot. In 1984 he had a serious car-crash and had 27 breaks in his bones, including two breaks in the ankle and some in the toes. After the accident he had another operation to make the ankle more upright which resulted in an arthritic condition and constant pain. Eventually, in the summer of 1997, Richard had the ankle joint immobilised completely by having it screwed to the foot, meaning he could not flex his foot in any direction. "One of the joints didn't freeze up properly, so it gave me a lot of pain," he said, "it just kept swelling up really badly. I supposed I just got used to it. Pain became the norm.

"On the third day of the course I had issues come up and I wanted to leave the training. I was in emotional turmoil about the purpose and direction of my life – feeling the responsibilities and duties that I have, and yearning for freedom. Doing the exercises during the day I allowed myself to experience things in a way I hadn't fully done before. For once, I let myself consider my life and it was very revealing. Part of the revelation was that I had been doing the same thing for twenty odd years and didn't know if this was really what I wanted to do.

"Anyway, I started to feel better and happier as the day went on, and went to bed that night feeling much more at peace. Next morning I got up at 5am because I wanted to watch the sun rise. I was on the stairs when I realised I could walk without pain. It was such an unusual sensation for me that I didn't quite trust it and went up and down the stairs a few times, just to test it out. But it was true – I went out and walked down the road and watched the sunrise and from there on I had no pain in my leg at all, for the first time in twelve years.

"On Tuesday after the seminar I went to see a surgeon who is a friend, and he was shocked and said, 'To be honest, it has completely healed. There is no movement in it, there was no clicking when it was manipulated.' Two months on from the seminar the improvement has been maintained.

"I don't know what happened," said Richard. "All I can say is that I was in extreme distress about my life, I allowed myself to really be aware of it, for once, and have started to find ways in which I can have more enjoyment, fun and creativity in my life – and I can walk and run without pain."

Case Study 2

Juliet Smith, is a London based charity fundraiser, aged 34, who had suffered from severe migraines since the age of 16, having had her first on the day of her maths and French O-levels! "I had never really considered why I had them until I did an Insight course, which was the first time I had stopped and looked at myself in any depth at all. On the course, I was so afraid of letting go emotionally that I actually did get a migraine – a really bad one. What happened was that instead of continuing to hold on, keep everything together as I would normally do, I just surrendered to it.

"I remember handing myself over to the assistants who helped me lie down – I was throwing up and looking terrible – but I actually let them take care of me – which was a real first for me.

"After the course I didn't have a migraine for over a year and I think that is because I just accepted myself and my feelings so much more easily. Just before Christmas last year I had a couple but I was able to see much more clearly than before how I was contributing to them – I hated my job, I was moving house... I knew I was getting back into my old pattern again. I was anxious, not looking after myself and not allowing myself to have those feelings. Now I know that I can course-correct and I know I have a very high degree of choice over whether or not I have a migraine."

Case Study 3

Maggie Venables, 41, is married with three grown sons, a retired nurse and educator who has had MS for over 3 years. She continuously used a stick when she first took part in the Gift of the Heart seminar two years ago.

(The Gift of the Heart is a course especially adapted for people with life-challenging illness, run as a charity by the Bryna Trust.)

"When I did the seminar I started feeling really unsteady on my feet," said Maggie, "but as the days progressed I realised that I was being given a key to unlock some really negative past history. I'd buried all the trauma, guilt and anger of being abused for seven years as a small child and had not let it go. I did a visualisation about letting go of old judgements against oneself in which one lets it all go and then comes out and walks up a hill. What happened for me was that this little innocent girl came running up the hill with me! It was fantastic! And so freeing to let go of the anger towards the person who did the abuse.

"Anyway, the following day I could walk without a stick – I was bouncing around and I was skipping, dancing around and everyone thought I was on some kind of a drug. Physically my legs would not have been able to hold me in the past, so this was really amazing for me. The change held for 18 months. I had no advances in the MS and I kept the mobility. I felt much better inside and I started to allow myself time, recognising how important it is to look after myself. I continued to have no major problems until this summer, when I had a sensory relapse and lost sensation in my legs and almost all over the body. Steroid treatment cleared it up, but I also realised that I had been emotionally quite negative and low for a while.

"So I came back and did another seminar, and again, the change has been fantastic. I feel serene and still. My stomach is really peaceful, and it's like there is a huge crystal shaft central in my chest glowing really clear positive white light. I have never felt this quiet inside before and I really started to look after myself properly for once. I am now so clear about the connection between how I am feeling and my physical ability. I am able to do so much more when I am feeling good inside."

Case Study 4

Letitia Blake, 38, Centre Manager for the Life Training Weekend in London, experienced a big physical change when she first took part in the Life Training in 1986. "When I did the course in 1986 I was suffering severe swelling of my stomach, which gave me a lot of pain, and on-going back trouble. I saw many alternative practitioners – including a naturopath, a homeopath and a massage therapist – and nothing seemed to shift it. In the end one of them said to me that they couldn't help me and that I needed to sort out some emotional issues in order to get well. I was extremely irritated by this, as you can imagine!

"Anyway, some time later I did the Life Training Weekend, (not because of the health reasons, but because I wanted to have more excitement in my life) and my stomach deflated amazingly (I noticed it when I woke up on Monday). The only explanation that I have for it is that I had cried a lot, expressed a lot of emotional pain that I had previously kept buttoned up. I never cried in the past, and I think my body was trying to communicate to me that I need to release everything that was pent up inside.

"It occasionally recurs and it has made me realise the link between mind and body. I get early warning signals and I can now defuse it before it gets too bad. I don't want this to sound too sensational – because I did put the effort and the work in, but it did feel sensational to me at the time!"

In fact, some doctors actually recommend this type of work to their patients. Berkshire GP and ex-surgeon, Dr James Colthurst, MBBS; BSc; MBA; MFHom; FRCS, says: "Bearing in mind the value of attitude in emerging from illness and maintaining good health in life, I have found many patients benefited considerably from the good work at Insight." He has suggested the seminar to people with ME, Multiple Sclerosis, depression, relationship troubles, and generally "feeling that they are in a rut in life".

So what is it about a large group process that may assist in bringing about physical change?

From my own experience I would say there are a number of factors, which those interviewed corroborate. Firstly, there is the group dynamic. A large number of people = a heck of a lot of energy that can be channelled positively. One of the most important and dramatic benefits of a large-group seminar is that we get to see that we really are not alone, that we share many of the same fears, goals, dreams and hopes and often have similar ways of sabotaging ourselves. That sense of not being alone, along with sensitive and experienced creation of a safe environment, mean that participants can sometimes open up in ways not possible in a one-to-one relationship. Maggie Venables said. "I had some counselling but I always felt unable to be totally honest. I played games with the counsellor and just didn't feel cared for. It was like it was just a job for them, and I felt criticised and judged. Somehow, on the Gift of the Heart seminar, I felt safe, and that safe environment meant I could express things that I had been too frightened to own up to before. I was even able to share that I occasionally have incontinence, and had to come back from an exercise and change my knickers! It was so liberating!"

Another significant factor is the intensity of these trainings, which usually consist of a concentrated number of hours running continuously over a few days or a weekend. From my own experience in therapy – much as I value it – there are times when I am just getting warmed up for a big breakthrough and the darn time is up! With the continuity of the large-group process, a momentum can be achieved that really assists the participants.

And then there is the simple fact of how inspiring human beings are! Many a time I have observed one person speak openly about an issue they are dealing with in their life, and in doing so, move the entire room. In this way, emotional healing can take place on many levels – as participants open up with support and love for one another; as they realise it is safe to be open; as their own buried pain is touched, triggered and released.

Forgiveness and letting go of guilt and resentment is another key that seems to create remarkable change for people. In the Insight seminar and, I am sure, many of the others, self-forgiveness is actively encouraged – as is forgiveness of those who have hurt, betrayed or abandoned us – and as any reader of Bernie Siegal's work will have gleaned, forgiveness is powerful stuff. What seems to help in bringing in self-forgiveness is seeing and hearing that the things we have held against ourselves so harshly are usually things that others too have experienced, and which are simply part of being human.

The last factor which I think is highly significant is the focus on having a vision or dream for oneself. This aspect is not always addressed in counselling, but is a key element of the personal work done in an Insight seminar. Most of us start off with wonderful dreams, but then get side-tracked by all the difficulties we think we will need to go through to achieve the dream, so we scale it down until it is something we barely even want. In a seminar, people connect with what inspires them and makes them passionate about life – exactly what Lawrence Le Shan talks about in Cancer as a Turning Point. He says, "In the majority of people I saw, (certainly not all) there had been, previous to the first noted signs of the cancer, a loss of hope in ever achieving a way of life that would give real and deep satisfaction, that would provide a solid raison d'etre – the kind of life that makes us look forward zestfully to each day and to the future." I have known many hundreds of people gain the inspiration from a seminar to begin living their lives in the way they choose – indeed, to "follow their bliss" as Joseph Campbell recommends.

Lastly, the other crucial element is giving rein to the child inside – the part that enjoys life, loves having fun, has dreams and desires that the sensible grown-up in all of us often denies. In a seminar, people reconnect with that part – which usually means they get to enjoy life more! There is the example of a woman who took part in a seminar in Australia some time ago, who was terminally ill with cancer. She was wheelchair-bound, and was not expected to live for long. During the seminar, she shared a dream she had had since she was small about riding a big motorbike, and proceeded to demonstrate, from her wheelchair, what that might look like! She had a blast, and the next day she was out of her wheelchair and standing unaided.

After the seminar she spent the next three months fulfilling her dream of riding round Australia on a motorbike and had the time of her life.

Shortly afterwards she died.

This story highlights to me again how little we really know about what truly goes on in the complex relationship between our hearts, our minds and our bodies. Did the Australian woman heal? Or did she fail, because she died? Does healing mean staying alive? Or living with peace, joy and loving for whatever time we have? As these questions continue to touch my life – both personally and for those around me – I will continue to place myself in seminars where there are people who are dedicated to taking responsibility for their own lives – in all its sometimes painful, unsavoury and scary aspects – and in doing what they can to heal, to love and to grow.

Further Information

* Insight – 020 7706 2021
* Gift of the Heart – 020 8455 7661
* Life Training – 020 7431 0922


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About Ginny Fraser

Ginny Fraser is a facilitator working with individuals and companies, both privately and through Insight. The guiding principle behind her work is that the more we can relax and be our real selves the more enjoyable, creative and successful life can be. She is also a writer and has just finished her first book, A Mother in my Heart, on involuntary childlessness, inspired by her experience working Mother Teresa's orphanages in Calcutta.

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