in here; I'll never be the same again, actually

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I've been accused of many things in my time - lying, thieving, taking the mick, taking myself too seriously, showing my underwear, not brushing my hair, being lazy, being a sour-natured old cow - but no one has ever, ever accused me of being lost for words. Words are what I'm good at. I open my mouth and they just come out. Even, apparently, when I'm asleep.

So it's uncomfortable to find myself speechless. I've sat here all day trying to describe isa and I still don't really know how. Isa stands for Institute of Self-Actualisation. Exactly. The name smacks of airport bookstands and salesmen staring at themselves in motel mirrors saying "you're the best. You're the top banana". Lovely Janey took herself off on one of their courses, or Experiences as they call them, a couple of years ago. She'd been weighed down with troubles before she went and didn't seem to mind about them any more. A few weeks later she returned. Then she started helping out. And I thought: cult.

Much of my life, working or not, is spent studying things with the intention of spotting the bad in them: the bogus, the manipulative, the shallow. I went to the Experience with the intention of spotting those things. It's good to find out how wrong you can be.

We live in a world of false prophets and charlatans. The Cerullos and Bakkers and Moons scatter damage about them not only by relieving people of cash but by making the rest of us suspicious of words like "spirituality" or "greater truth". The only thing that made me undergo the Experience was the fact that knowledge is essential to the forming of opinions. As the Princess of Wales plagiarised from Reg Holdsworth in Coronation Street the other day, knowledge is power.

Now, after one of the more uncomfortable weekends of my life, I feel churned up: a nice kind of churned up, the kind of churned up you get when your love-object walks into the room, with a core of stillness. And that feeling that the future is a black hole waiting to suck me in has gone into abeyance.

So how do you become actual? Well first off you spend four days in the York Novotel. British Rail being themselves, this is more expensive than four days in Paris unless you come from Leeds, but let it pass. Locked away in their conference facilities, you and 150 other people, have to agree to do whatever a lovely silver-haired Dane called Ole tells you to do. Like hug strangers and not take painkillers until Sunday night.

The premise is roughly this: we're imprisoned by chains of fear and dishonestly. And rather than face our fears, we make excuses, explain things away as boring, too time-consuming, other people's responsibility, or just plain wrong. As everybody - parents, peers, bosses, nations, governments, religious leaders - suffers from the same problem, there can be no progress. We whirl around in a soup of suspicion, confusion and isolation.

So what they do in York is force everyone to confront their own fears. I'm not talking bathing in spiders or firewalking: I'm talking about that sick feeling you get when you've got to make a phone call you don't want to make or own up to a mistake. So once you're locked in this room, they give you exercises. There's no coercion involved. No one is forced to do anything. No one is tied up or stood over or made to look a fool for not co-operating; it's like the best kind of teaching, where the pupils feel so proud of getting over each hurdle that the next one seems less daunting.

I'm not going to describe the exercises. I agreed not to. At the end, not the beginning. So did everyone else. I've analysed dodgy religions before and wouldn't hesitate to describe everything in the minutest detail if there was evil in it. But these are sweet, gentle people. And it's impossible to describe any individual exercise. Individually they sound either crackpot or terrifying; as a whole, one after the other, you can see a logic even if you're hating every minute of it.

Which I did. I spent most of the weekend in tears of one sort of another: tears of rage, tears of fear and tears because I couldn't think of any other way to react. I know it's a very girly way to go on, but that was how it was. I could see the sense in everything Ole said - and boy, can that man talk - but I just didn't want this prodding. Most of the people around me were the same. Then gradually, one by one, you would see lightbulbs go off in people's heads - bing! - and they would sit back with this smile of acceptance and peace. It was extraordinary. But it didn't happen to me.

Sunday lunch, I went out with Pat and Vicky and ranted about manipulation and not wanting to do the things they were asking of us. They just smiled and shrugged and said "It's OK. You can feel like that. No one's trying to make you think anything else." And that was when the lightbulb went off in my own head. I suddenly realised these people were no longer my adversaries.Things are, at least for now, different. Oh, God. I'll be hugging trees next

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