It all started two weeks ago, when I flexed my credit card to the tune of pounds 75 and registered with Insight, an American-based organisation that promises to help people 'have a positive and profound experience of themselves, and their own power and light'.
For me, the title of their six-day seminar, 'The Awakening Heart', was ironic. Having recently broken off my long-term relationship, my heart was as dead as the proverbial dodo. But it was the persistent nagging of a girlfriend who had come back glowing from the experience that finally swayed my judgement. Plus the money-back guarantee.
Reluctantly turning up at the Mount Royal Hotel in the West End of London, I took comfort in the rumour that celebrities such as John Cleese, Janet Reger, Terence Stamp and Bernard Levin were all postgraduates of the seminar. Fantasising that I would be mingling minds with the likes of Daniel Day Lewis, I tentatively greeted my fellow inmates in the reception room. Slick career women, New Age teenagers, elderly Jewish matrons, city gents. Eighty people of every age, class and colour stood around, nervously fingering their plastic name badges and making polite conversation.
I overheard someone say: 'The course was originally based on EST . . . ' Stunned, I switched into paranoia mode and started playing 'Spot the Cult'. A man in the corner looked like one of the refugees from the camp at Waco in Texas - take away the beard and it could be David Koresh.
The conversation next to me deepened. 'Insight is a mix of different approaches including Gestalt, Core System Psychology and NLP.' The only approach I wanted was a double whisky. No luck - only iced water was on offer. A beaming 'course helper' insisted upon sticking on my badge.
Arguing that I already knew my name, I took a seat in the back row of the main room, and sat down to observe, arms and legs folded in the 'closed body position'. (I could psycho-babble with the best of them, I thought smugly.) An immaculate blonde in her late thirties took the floor. With a smile that advertised cosmetic dentistry, she announced: 'Bella and welcome to Insight. My name is Mary Anne Summerville, and I am your facilitator for the seminar. We are going to ask you to participate in your experience . . . and experience your participation.'
Her voice oozed 'caring' Californian sincerity. Amazing. In a flash, I experienced a complete change of heart. Suddenly the Moonies seemed a lot more fun.
Mary Anne fixed the audience with a piercing stare. 'Before we start the 'sharing' let's go over the ground rules during the seminar.' Alas, due to a pledge of secrecy I am unable to repeat these, but suffice to say they were enough to make alcoholics and drug addicts run screaming for the door. Then came the 'sharing'. Over the six days, I was to learn it meant signalling for a roving microphone and saying anything you felt, from 'the cat threw up this morning' to 'I hate my lover and want to rip his heart out'.
But to start, confessions were gentle and along the lines of: 'I just want to say I feel an incredible energy in the room, and I'm glad to be here.' After a few more sharings came the first exercise. We each had to stand face to face with as many people as possible as we moved around the room and say one of three statements: 'I am willing to be open with you', 'I am not willing to be open with you', or 'I am not willing to say which'.
The thought of having to communicate honestly with a roomful of strangers mortified me. However, when the various faces opposite me stated 'I'm willing to be open with you', in nearly all the cases, I found myself suddenly feeling the same about them. With one notable exception. A very good-looking man. I blushed. We both hesitated. Neither wanting to go first. Then together we said: 'I'm not willing to say.' It was a deliberate flirtation. Both of us attracted, neither risking rejection.
Next, more 'sharings' to discuss the exercise. A sad young man stood up to admit: 'I felt hurt when I was willing to be open, and the person opposite said they were not willing.' A woman frantically waved her hand for the microphone: 'I felt guilty because when people said they were willing to be open with me, I said the opposite. But it had nothing to do with how I felt about them. It was how I feel about myself. I don't want to be open with anyone.'
My ears pricked up. That sentence struck home. Recently rejected in love because my partner was unable to 'give', why did I instantly go into a pathetic little huddle and assume there was something wrong with me?
During the brief break, the good-looking man cornered me. We laughed about the exercise. In an atmosphere where everybody was endeavouring to be completely honest, both of us realised we had immediately set up a pattern of 'game-playing' when faced with a potential new relationship. A destructive behaviour trap I had fallen into in the past, time and time again. As the seminar progressed, my cynicism started to dissolve. Through days of role-playing, story-telling and amusing games, all the images and patterns we create in relationships with lovers, family and friends became apparent.
As people stood up to share, Mary Anne's sharp analysis had an uncanny knack of getting to the real root of the problem. To give an example, she would listen to a simple statement like: 'My partner doesn't compliment me' and ask careful questions until the speaker uncovered the real cause of their worry. In this case, insecurity stemmed from a childhood trauma.
As more people talked openly, you began to realise that certain emotions repeatedly emerged. Beliefs of inadequacy because everyone else had (or appeared to have) their life sorted out. Fears of being unlovable, and worries about what others thought of you. Discovering the human race shared these common weaknesses, the group grew together. By the time we had reached the hugging meditation exercise and the candlelit graduation ceremony, I was more centred than a compass.
It is impossible to explain what changed me from a caustic critic to a contented convert, except to say that what I learnt of most value was to love myself. The love letter I received was an exercise written by me at the height of this belief, which was sealed and handed to the organisers. They deliberately posted it on two weeks later, and by chance, it arrived at a perfect moment.
I was just about to weaken and accept my ex-lover back on his terms - I didn't. Further armed with an ongoing visualisation technique to give me strength in moments of abandonment, I no longer dread rejection.
As the saying goes, fall in love with yourself, and you start a lifelong affair. Let's face it - you could do worse.
Insight: 071-706 2021/0325
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