Nov 03 2008

Victories of the Heart Shadow Weekend: Not Recommended as Currently Advertised

The Victories of the Heart Shadow weekend program is not recommended for any men or mental health professionals.

As I have previously written, “the  Shadow weekend remains shrouded in the darkness it’s (”powerful advanced retreat”) hype claims to illuminate.”

You can read the description here and judge for yourself whether it helps you understand what happens at the weekend.
By definition, hype means “exaggerated claims”, not necessarily based on realistic outcomes.

While the VOH website description and its author claim this is the experience needed for VOH graduates to become fully integrated men, this weekend could be harmful, especially to men who may be trauma survivors.

Further, the authors do not cite any research to validate their claims. There are also no outcome reports detailing the success of this program reaching its stated goals.

As discussed earlier, the new description may be considered by some to offer the illusion of details, while omitting crucial answers to serious questions.

  • Is there nudity?
  • Are men asked to undress at any point in the weekend?
  • How much silence is used and why?
  • Is the use of shadow objects, including switch blades and handcuffs, a type of exposure therapy?
  • Who is leading the so called sweat lodge?
  • What is the training and experience of the sweat lodge leader?
  • Are men encouraged to randomly vent emotions, including shouting obscenities at each other inside the so called sweat lodge?
  • What safeguards are in place to respect Native American traditions in leading the sweat lodge?
  • Will any therapist leaders recruit their personal therapy clients and increase the potential harm related to “dual relationships?”
  • What is the ethical and clinical justification for creating an experience where therapist- leaders risk boundary crossover and possible violations with clients-participants?

As an eyewitness to a 1990’s version of the VOH Shadow weekend sweat lodge, I would describe the scene as chaotic, poorly planned, with random emotional outpourings and the occasional hurling of obscenities between participants and leaders.

It surprised me and, in hindsight, I believe it was very inappropriate.

My educated guess is the random emotional venting is still the norm for any recent sweat lodge experience.

Has anyone on the Board asked about this aspect of the program?

In fact, the term sweat lodge does not really apply to this type of experience.

The Shadow weekend does not offer a sweat lodge, but rather a coercive (group pressure does not really give the men a choice), encounter group experience, done in a closed space with heated rocks without the informed consent of the participants.

Is this the plan for the sweat lodge experience now?

If so, how can this be a helpful, integrative experience?

If not, how is it different?

A sweat lodge is an important part of Native American spirituality. Native Americans refer to white men and women who exploit Native American ceremonies, like the sweat lodge, as “plastic shamans”, a type of New Age fraud.

Native Americans are both amused and upset by this exploitation which they see as just the next version of theft by the dominant culture.

For an especially ridiculous portrayal of white men and women exploiting Native American spirituality, watch this You Tube video.

While the sweat lodge has been used for centuries by many cultures, the spiritual purpose of purification, spiritual healing, meditation and prayer became integral to Native American culture after the intrusion and violence brought by Europeans, including the introduction of alcohol.

Native Americans not only had their ancestral lands stolen by Europeans and were wiped out by the diseases they brought with them, but now the dominant white culture has needy men and women who exploit their spirituality for glory and greed.

Native Americans believe the sweat lodge should be free and white men and women violate a fundamental quality of the sweat lodge by charging money for the experience.

Is the VOH Board of Directors aware of the cultural insensitivity of white men from the North Shore of Chicago exploiting and possibly misusing Native American spirituality?

If asked by authorities, can anyone associated with the Shadow program or VOH provide any documentation of training in the area of sweat lodges?

While the use of shadow objects is considered a core element of the experience, their use is pointless at best, harmful at worst focusing attention on both leader and participant’s unique sense of their own “bad and/or shameful” in too open a group context.

The prior leaders of this weekend’s personal use of a switch blade and handcuffs are particularly concerning. They would argue perhaps they are modeling healthy acceptance of negative aspects of self. However, one could also argue they are modeling an unhealthy acting out of their own personal insecurities and encouraging other men to do the same.

Integrative? No. Perhaps harmful or even re-traumatizing? Yes.

How could it be re-traumatizing? For men who may be trauma survivors, acting out an inner drama with shadow objects may cause them to become emotionally flooded and re-experience, rather than integrate trauma memories and sensations.

It’s the re-experiencing of the trauma, opening the pathways to stored emotional memory of trauma, without a therapeutic plan to help the person to regulate their emotions, understand and integrate the trauma event, experience some closure,  and develop a plan for further work.

This happens in appropriate psychotherapy and/or any psychodrama facilitated correctly. The activities at the Shadow weekend I witnessed and recent ones described by participants did not resemble psychotherapy or psychodrama in any way.

I know I and other participants were surprised there was no psychodrama at the Shadow weekend, and later at the Wisdom years.

Perhaps, the older leaders believed the psychodrama was too closely associated with the MKP Warrior program. In their futile efforts to “differentiate” themselves from Warriors, they decided on a plan which diminished the experience for participants who expected  more of the deeper working through possible in more focused therapy activities.

For example, the Shadow weekend could have used the same structure as the MKP Warrior and the VOH Breakthrough weekend which offers relationship building experiences in preparation for psychodrama on Saturday.

A possible psychodrama on Saturday at the Shadow weekend could have a theme of working through something identified before the weekend or on Friday night.

Do participants have to drag some objects around with them all weekend? No. They could use imagery on Friday night to begin to give shape and form to specific trauma men experienced or caused in their lives.

Having participants and staff create and do a “dance” with Shadow objects seems shallow and missing the point. Having done this myself, I felt embarassed and overly exposed. I believe the risk with this type of activity, as I have said previously, is to re-traumatize, rather than heal.
This does go to the heart of the matter. VOH lacked an internal moral compass and understanding of what made the programs successful.

I remember being asked what I thought about this when leaders were dysfunctionally preparing to jointly lead the January Breakthrough weekend.

I said, “the core experience of the weekend for men is the psychodrama. The intensity of the experience opens the pathway to trauma memory, we as a staff team help the man re-enact the trauma event(s) safely, protect them from re-traumatization, and enable them to “work through” the trauma experience to the best of their and our ability.”

Only the other leader who asked the question provided an answer to this question. His perspective was the “heartwork” and entire weekend represented a spiritual experience for the men.

Imbedded in this answer, but unspoken was that he and the leaders were the “spirit guides” for the men.

While not perhaps intended, this was the type of grandiosity which fueled leadership historically in MR/VOH.  The idea that leaders “did something” during the weekend which “resulted in an outcome” for the men was most obvious.

It was and is a very linear, one dimensional perspective limiting possible growth for both leaders and participants.

This linear perspective was reinforced tremendously by the intense counter-transference or feelings generated by participants who were also therapy clients of leaders.

Therapy clients at one of these intense weekends were put into a psychological pressure cooker where their relationship with their therapist was greatly challenged.

They were competing with other men for the positive attention of the leader and quickly learned their role as a “good client” meant showering their therapist leader with admiration.

No longer was it therapist-client, but something akin to therapist-friend/brother/son. It was a weird type of dual relationship where the client was encouraged to feel closer, while still paying that large $175+ fees.

So, how was the experience for them? Therapist leaders didn’t really have to ask. They knew they could wait till they saw their client next and see their eyes, beaming with love and affection.

Knowledgeable clinicians understand this is the “therapeutic relationship” on some kind of psychological steroids. It’s morphing into something difficult to manage or understand.

If a participant knows other therapist/leaders involved in VOH weekends, it’s highly likely they will find themselves a therapy client of one of them. So, without paying attention to what the treatment needs are for that person, they become a target for the “weekend they need to heal and become whole.”

In this way, a type of unconscious, inverted group therapy is created. This one client seeing one therapist now has a group of therapists who are “working on him.”

The client tries to be in individual therapy, but it all gets distorted by the (therapeutic) input from these other therapist/leaders, which includes covert and overt put downs by these other therapist/leaders of each other.

Here’s the image: client is sitting in a therapy room with his therapist, with a chorus of other therapists who are also doing therapy (to) him.

It ain’t a good outcome.

This may have also been true for men who participated in the Shadow weekend who were clients of the leaders.

I know this partially true for me, in that I had a negative experience at the Shadow weekend, decided to never do it again, but withheld my negative judgments for fear of losing what I regarded as my positive relationship with the leaders.

In this way, I did a disservice to them and myself.

However, consider what it might have meant to you as one of these leaders’ therapy clients to walk into a dark room with a spotlight on the two therapist leaders naked, except for some body paint at the very beginning of the entire experience and they tell you to take all your clothes off and get naked.

This “whatever you would call it” was supposed to be accepted blindly by other leaders and Board members.

However, in the MR/VOH world, there was no place for negative feedback.  Leaders “hooked” on the adrenaline rush of participants idealizing them had no place for negativity.

My judgment the after the weekend support groups needed improvement and other constructive ideas were met with resistance, coldness and jealousy. There was so little healthy self-esteem in that leader group, they constantly needed a scapegoat. Someone else was always responsible for their misery, not themselves.

The original leaders were obsessed with solidifying their legacies via the the Wisdom years and Shadow weekend respectively. They had no time or interest in any crucial infrastructure work, like facing the great distance between the hype about follow up groups and their reality.

My well known conflict with one of the principals began when I restated my concern we as leaders were not doing enough to improve the small groups after the weekend. He became very defensive and told me,”that’s not what I’ve heard. I’m told they are really a wonderful experience.”

I think I asked him who told him, but that was irrelevant. He was unconcerned with the small groups and later told me, “the small groups are your thing; my focus is on other things in the organization.”

Other things meant of course, creating the most amazing, only program for men over 50. I had done the Wisdom years, had a nice experience, saw a lot of potential, and was even ready to help staff the weekend.

The ensuing 2 weeks after this conversation with this principal and the failed “intervention” with the Shadow weekend leaders led to what I considered scapegoating emotional mistreatment where one, then the four original leaders refused to resolve my complaints first among ourselves, then later in some public forum with a mediator.

I even challenged them to a public debate of the issues at a Board meeting. They declined. I assume that meant I was not worthy of their time.

I learned later these original leaders met for dinner privately dealt with their own conflicts, discussed me, and agreed not to meet with me. I suppose they thought I would go away.

I was told I was “chronically negative” and “brought conflict” to the organization and amazingly, I think the fact these individuals were being “negative” to me was lost on them.

I was being criticized for doing something they were actually doing to me. Analytical people might call this “projection”, the process of identifying something in others which is uncomfortable or unknown to themselves.

They were reacting with anger, maybe a controlled type of rage (who was I to criticize them?), yet acting and claiming it was me who was being negative.

To me, they failed to monitor their own projections. They could have learned something about themselves, made positive improvements to themselves and the shaky programs they were over-promoting.

So, it was this limited analysis of events, failure to monitor their projections,  lack of knowledge of how trauma affects memory, lack of program oversight, leaders incorrectly encouraging the blind adoration of their clients, among other systemic vulnerabilities which  led to such faulty thinking as a weekends focused on pouring tequila on men’s genitals, the use of potentially lethal, shadow objects, extensive nudity and silence and the sense of entitlement they could do just about anything, including mistreating others in positions of lesser power (I was not the only one), without being accountable.

Specifically, the random use of shadow objects could easily be considered a type of “exposure therapy” without informed consent of the participants.

In his article describing exposure therapy, John M. Grohol,warns,

“Exposing someone to their fears or prior traumas without the client first learning the accompanying coping techniques — such as relaxation or imagery exercises — can result in a person simply being re-traumatized by the event or fear. Therefore exposure therapy is typically conducted within a psychotherapeutic relationship with a therapist trained and experienced with the technique and the related coping exercises.”
At the Shadow weekend, I know of no prior informed consent process, nor do I know of any special training staff leaders have in the area of exposure therapy.

Therefore any use of shadow objects create a risk of harm to participants who may be trauma survivors, or who may be upset seeing others, perhaps their own personal therapists who may be leaders, engaging with dangerous objects.

An ironic note here, the MKP New Warrior weekend attempts to make sure no dangerous objects, knives, or other weapons are brought into the weekend. While VOH leaders historically have hypocritically bad mouthed MKP behind their backs, the Shadow weekend actually encourages men to bring objects, even dangerous ones to their weekend.

From a psychological wellness or legal liability perspective, this is not smart.

The use of nudity at this 1990’s shadow weekend was also, well, a weird, uncomfortable example of therapeutic boundary crossing.

At the conclusion of the weekend, the leaders asked participants and staff to take their clothes off. Then everyone stood around nude, as the weekend ended.

There was no rhyme or reason for the nudity at the end of the weekend. It was uncomfortable for everyone.

It was sort of a time when participants would give each other a hug goodbye, but it was extremely awkward.

It seemed to me the leaders didn’t know what to do, and may have just decided the night before something like, “yea, let’s have the guys get nude at the end!” without fully thinking through the implications.

I know one of the recent Shadow weekends had more extensive nudity, with no official notice to both VOH leadership and participants. How it was possible for so much nudity and silence to occur without anyone knowing is a good question.
I am not aware of any cultural diversity training within VOH, and language during weekends might be assumed to be biased towards hetero…certainly an environment where a gay man who may be married to a woman will have a difficult time coming out.

Also, there are more serious psychological risks involved with a program asking men to remove clothing and remain in some degree of undress. Asking men to disrobe could potentially trigger emotionally damaging memories, especially for men who were sexual abuse survivors.

Let’s look at the potential harm by this program from a research perspective.

Jim Hopper, Ph.D. estimates about 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before age 16, while some studies suggest anywhere from 4% to 28% of all boys may be sexually abused.
Hopper goes on to discuss the research findings of Linda Meyer Williams, a New Hampshire psychologist related to abuse amnesia and delayed recall of memory of abuse.

William’s findings suggest that as many as 1 in 3 sexual abuse victims may not remember all or parts of their own abuse history.

So, if 20 men attend a Shadow weekend, it’s possible 3 men may be sexual abuse survivors and 1 of them may not remember any or parts of their sexual abuse history.
What will be there experience if they show up at a weekend and are asked to take off their clothes?

How do these very poor program ideas get through the gate? Historically, there hasn’t been much oversight.

Manipulation and triangulation was the norm in Men’s Room/VOH politics. Leaders always found a “strong man” to fight their battles for them. I know of two “strong men”, much like the enforcer in the mob, he was the one who met with the leaders privately, was made to feel special, then convinced to go out and do the leaders bidding.

I know exactly how it worked, as a conflict I had with leaders resulted in the more recent “strong man” trying to get me to back off, then writing legalistic letters designed to scare me off, with the leader’s signature, not his own.

There was a long history with the other main “strong man” fighting the leaders battle with another leader. Unfortunately, the core conflict between the leaders was avoided, the “strong man” blamed and scapegoated, and then pushed out of the organization. His use apparently had been used up, and he became expendable.

The method was to elevate the strong man and then keep him dependent on the leader(s) through intermittent reinforcement…sometimes they got praised, sometimes they got demeaned, criticized or even ridiculed.

It sounded like, “…you know, that’s just the way you are…” and the implication was it was a bad way to be and needed to get changed quickly.

One could never be sure.

B.F Skinner’s research on Operant Conditioning showed that behavior reinforced intermittently was much more difficult to extinguish.

So, VOH leaders controlled the strong men by praising them, elevating them in the organization, then criticizing or worse when their will was not followed.

The strong men could never be sure of the leaders approval and support because it was not given consistently.

As a result, if there was an organizational conflict involving the leaders, the strong men always sided with the leaders, even though it is always better for conflict in inter-personal relationships to be addressed and resolved directly.

One was never quite sure what the leader response would be.

In my perceptions, however, all organizational and inter-personal conflicts were expressed through these strong men. Did leaders fight directly? No. They fought through other people indirectly.

For example, the nudity issue in the Shadow weekend was never resolved because the leaders involved used someone else’s “opinion” to rule the issue. So and so said, “use black gym shorts”, and this was supposed to be an amazing solution.

The real message is a much more passive aggressive “fu.” See if you think you will get us to change on this issue. We are still going to have the guys take off their clothes…we’re just going to allow them to put on a skimpy pair of black gym shorts.

More intermittent reinforcement here in that the leaders in good faith dealing with this issue were thrown off track by the end run of the Shadow leaders to bring in someone else’s opinion.

In this particular situation, I have always been curious if the VOH strong man at the time hadn’t already given his approval for this “dumb as rocks” solution.

I remember looking at him waiting for him to chime in and say, “no way…we have to resolve this among ourselves and develop the best possible program…it’s in your interest as leaders for us to be able to support you 100%.”

This did not happen.

Why would he support a bad program idea? He also had to survive with the approval of these long term leaders and may have feared the withdrawal of their praise.
Good for referrals and building the programs?  No.

The unfortunate part about all of this is the ambivalence of the VOH authority structure (Board and leaders) has enabled many bad program judgments, including:

  • A disrespectful Native American sweat lodge being run by north shore white guys, nudity, shadow objects, etc. continue.
  • Awkward dr. death/g_d  exercise at the Wisdom years. Most guys get the point, but standing around watching this faulty attempt at playing a death-god just didn’t work….the concept of leaders playing g_d also reflects the grandiosity of leaders acting as if they know what’s best for men. James Arthur Ray actually had an activity where he played god at his program. This was the same program where people died.
  • The flawed idea of pouring tequila onto the genitals of guys over 50 at the beginning of the Wisdom years. This may have been the most damaging aspect of the Wisdom years program dooming its potential to become a more popular program. While there are multiple meanings for everything, a clinician with a Freudian view might regard this as the “angry plan to burn off the genitals of men who have been bad….a type of chemical castration to punish them for deeds unknown… leaving them with wet pants to embarrass them, reminding them of their loss of control in life…”
  • The 25 year sabatage of running effective follow-up groups after weekends…the leadership continues to recreate the wheel over and over again as if its the wheel that needs fixing…the organization needs to pay small group leaders to attract men who will be reliable and competent in group facilitation.
  • The bifurcation (division) of the VOH organization by leaders destroying the good faith efforts by volunteers (most of whom donated $1,000 per year) to create a more functional, maybe even dynamic organization, rather than a program with two-leader team franchises who operate independently from each other, duplicating efforts without any accountability, and dependent on the two founding leaders…if one doubts the damage this bifurcation process, ask where all the Board members from 2004-2008 are now…most resigned who were not also weekend leaders…why did they resign?
  • The failure to create any internal conflict resolution process…in the VOH world, there is no conflict…and if any shows up, the person bringing it is disparaged, diagnosed, and forced out.

Are all programs evaluated by participants? What happens with this feedback?

For VOH to enable leaders to “just continue to try and fail” when the alternative is to learn to collaborate, surrender, utilize a team approach and be successful is the fatal flaw of the VOH system.

If they want more men signing up for weekends, recruitment is not the answer. Like all external solutions, they usually do not work.  An alcoholic is not going to get better if they move to another city. They will get better if they do the internal work necessary to build a life without alcohol use. The solution is within themselves, not somewhere outside of themselves.

Better for upset VOH leaders to look internally and ask “…what is my extreme ownership about this program that has me hooked?”

Many of them are therapists and know the language.

The question is what’s going on for them?

Their failure to ask and answer this question has resulted in more failures than success.

Getting your therapy clients to attend your weekends is no measure of success, and is definitely part of the problem.

There are other questions to be asked, but there has been too much secrecy.  I understand the Board may not know what to look for or may feel intimidated by the bullying of long term leaders and their entitlement.

The Board needs to step up and ask questions.

A good start would be to ask, “what else don’t I know?”

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