Gaza City, December 15, 2009
The Advanced Training Program (we call it, and so do the Palestinians, “ATP”) has a complex structure that is at first a bit daunting. Our 15 Gaza faculty coach the participants in leading the same kinds of small groups that they first experienced in the initial training. The international faculty, passing from group to group provide feedback, later, in supervision, on how the Gaza faculty has helped the participants and what they could do or say more appropriately, clearly or concisely; where they could have been more sensitive to the spoken or unspoken needs of a group member; how their own reticence or preconceptions may have inhibited or biased them in their advice to a participant-leader. “Be honest with us,” our conscientious Palestinian team had repeatedly insisted. “We want to do the best job for our people. We are thirsty for learning.”
The participants lead the ATP groups in pairs; there are ten people in each group and five sessions. Hugely nervous at first, in spite of a day of reassurance and coaching, they conduct the opening meditation, and lead the check-in in which they and the other group members say how they are doing and what they are feeling at the present moment. We have encouraged participant-leaders to let go of self-conscious professional distance, to be honest about their own feelings, to be “real people as well as leaders.” Some do this with admirable courage and humility: “I am a professor at university, but at this moment I feel like I am back in grade school.” Others are more guarded. Everyone in the group speaks in turn – no interrupting, analyzing or interpreting allowed.
The participant-leaders then teach didactic material about, for example, the fight or flight and stress response that are activated by the sympathetic nervous system, and the use of slow deep breathing (which mobilizes the parasympathetic nervous system) to balance this state of hyperarousal which is so common in deeply traumatized and uneasy Gaza. Then they lead an experiential exercise – it could be guided imagery, or drawing one’s problem and its solution or quiet meditation that brings about relaxation or an active meditation of fast deep breathing or shaking and dancing, designed to raise energy in the depleted and depressed and break up fixed patterns of thought and feeling. Then they ask group members to report on their experience: “I feel like a burden is lifted” says one young, bearded school psychologist, after six or eight minutes of charged up, bellows-like arm pumping, deep breathing. “I feel free for the first time since the war to breathe the breeze from the sea.” They conclude each group with a quiet meditation. Afterwards the pair of participant-leaders say how they feel they have done and the other participants share what the experience was like for them; the Gaza faculty member concludes with his or her assessment.
This will go on for five two-hour groups over four days. It is designed to equip our participants to take our model back into their work places where they will offer it to kids and adults, the elderly and the deaf, former prisoners in Israeli jails and ambulance drivers, abused women and confused men, the anxious and angry, those bereaved by violence and those fearful they will be. In a society in which psychological problems are stigmatized and psychotherapy is often viewed, if it is considered at all, with suspicion, our model has wide appeal. It is offered as a way to develop skills and strengths, of mind as well as body, an opportunity to come together without fear of analysis or interpretation, a modern version of traditional, honored communal gathering and healing.
Each day we have a panel where Gaza faculty answer questions from the entire group of participants about the challenges of leading groups and working with individuals, about balancing the need to maintain order in the group with an openness that invites sharing, about presenting didactic material in a way that is accurate but easily comprehensible. In Gaza the questions have a special urgency and poignancy. One male psychologist, slender and graying unfolds slowly from his chair. “How do you,” he asks soberly, “deal with a situation in which during a mind-body group bombs are going off?”
“This has happened to me several times,” replies Mohammed, the psychiatrist, “You find out what is happening – I don’t want to say who is shooting,” he adds to some laughter. “You make sure your group is as safe as it can be. Then you discuss feelings so everyone can get some relief. Then do deep breathing to help everyone, including yourself, to relax. Then continue the group.”
“I was working with kids one time,” Jamil adds. “Every time there was shooting we got up and shook our bodies. Every time a bomb went off we all yelled loudly. It worked pretty well.”
“What about if you are a leader and someone says something that is very tragic and you feel like crying? Is it permitted?”
“In the war terrible things happened” responds Abdel-Hamid, “and the people come to us to talk about it: Women in my groups whose children were killed, men who saw their wives and daughters dying from burns, and I remember the things I myself saw. It is only human for us to cry as well.”