Can an LGAT change?
How the Next Level Intensive grew up and made
by Chris Mathe
First, a disclaimer: I am currently the staff administrator for the
Next Level Intensive and a graduate of its predecessor, Daybreak. Other
than a small stipend I receive for each training, I have no financial stake
in promoting the Next Level Intensive. What follows is my own opinion –
full of my judgements and biases. I have been directly involved for the
past five years in actively changing the program and believe we are on
the right track towards creating a program that protects and honors its
participants while providing an intense and very rewarding personal growth
Many of the stories on the Awareness Page describe programs that, in
varying degrees, both help and harm participants. Most of the programs
seem to have very similar goals of producing greater self awareness, increased
personal power, better relationships, releasing and healing of old hurts,
and a better sense of purpose. Is it possible to reach some or all of these
goals in a group setting without having to put up with humiliating and
manipulative exercises, authoritarian control, and aggressive sales and
recruitment techniques? We have found that it is not only possible, but
even greater change and positive results occur when these negative
aspects are removed.
Next Level Intensive started out more than fifteen years ago as a third
generation LGAT spin-off called Daybreak. A husband and wife team, both
therapists, decided to create a program that built on the structure of
the LGATs, but with several improvements: Much smaller group sizes (16
max), more staff, a more therapeutic approach, and a weekly aftercare program.
Despite being run by therapists and the other changes that both increased
the program’s intensity and provided a more personal experience for each
participant, Daybreak still had many of the same characteristics that drew
criticism from participants of other LGATs.
Psychologist Dr. Ron Wu brought Daybreak to Sacramento in 1990. Over
the next five years, he and his co-facilitator modified several of the
processes and created more one-on-one time for the participants. For the
most part however, the tone and attitude of the program remained unchanged.
When his co-facilitator resigned late in 1995, Dr. Wu and his two staff
administrators (one of them was me) and several advisory groups of graduates
began an intense examination of the program, its goals, its assumptions,
its exercises, and how it was staffed and facilitated.
Next Level Intensive Emerges
We started with the outcomes we desired:
We applied these goals to everything: the exercises, the homework, the
tone, the staff, the facilitators, the celebrations, and the aftercare.
Over the last five years, the program has changed considerably. In changing
the program substantially, we ended our affiliation with the Los Angeles
Daybreak program and renamed our program: The Next Level Intensive.
Do no harm,
Increase peoples' ability to experience and communicate a full range of
emotions appropriately, honestly, and directly,
Give people a chance to become much more aware of themselves and their
Allow people to heal and get past those issues and events that hold them
back from the things they want in life, and
Give people the emotional and physical support during and after the program
that best facilitates these goals.
What has emerged is a program that is different from Daybreak and other
LGATs in many crucial ways:
The most noticeable difference probably is the tone of the entire training.
Since the qualities that we hope to encourage in the participants are awareness,
direct and honest communication, compassion for self and others, accountability,
and a willingness to change and grow, these are the qualities the facilitators
and staff attempt to model at all times. Participants are treated with
respect, compassion, and honesty.
Along these lines, every exercise has been and continues to be examined
for congruence with the above values. Any humiliation or manipulation has
been eliminated. Over the years, many exercises have been redesigned or
eliminated. Explicit goals have been defined for each exercise and we are
always asking the questions: What are the goals? Are we attaining the goals?
Is there a better way to reach these goals?
The maximum group size is 16 and the average is about 9. This makes for
a very safe, trusting, and intimate setting. It also means that participants
cannot hide. Typically groups bond very closely.
The program is facilitated by an experienced psychologist (Dr. Ron Wu)
and another experienced therapist (Bonny Helms, MFT, for the last three
years. She has gotten very busy in her private practice and we are interviewing
potential replacements right now). The male/female balance of the facilitators
works great. They are not attacking or authoritarian at all. They are very
real people with very accepting, professional, and concerned attitudes.
There are between 12 and 16 staff members. These are volunteers that willingly
give about 100 hours of their time to staff. We always have many more requests
to staff than positions to fill. Staffers go through training on the psychological,
ethical, and legal issues of the training plus the theory and goals of
each exercise. They also attend training sessions before each 3 or 5 day
session preparing for that particular training. Special attention is given
to the issues of transference and counter-transference – the feelings the
participants and staff will feel as a result of projecting their own issues
and needs onto others.
There is no secrecy about the processes. We strongly believe in informed
consent. Our only "recruitment" vehicle is our Information Nights, held
every other month. Even at these meetings, there are no strong-arm tactics
– they consist of the facilitators giving a brief description of the program
and what to expect and then lots of questions and answers. We encourage
graduates to come to these Info Nights, but they typically only respond
to direct questions. There is no attempt to "close" sales. Interested people
are encouraged to think about what they heard and call Dr. Wu if they have
any more questions. It is all very informal and comfortable. As you may
have picked up, we are very leery of anything that looks, smells, or feels
like recruitment. It is important to us that people choose to do this program
because they want to.
Potential participants are screened with an in-depth assessment interview
covering mental, health, family, job, legal, and social issues. What we
are on the lookout for are any DSM-IV axis I or II tendencies. Specifically,
we are looking for addictions (drugs or alcohol), depression, suicide risk,
and general ego strength. We refer active addicts to recovery programs.
They have to be clean for at least six months and in a recovery program
in order to be a participant. For other potential problems, we will refer
potential participants to individual therapy, or, if they are in therapy,
request permission to consult with the therapist.
While the hours are long, we endeavor to give the participants at least
6-8 hours sleep per night. They are encouraged to bring any food or snacks
they desire and have the availability of a refrigerator for this purpose.
As far as homework goes, most of the homework is done before the training
and between the two sessions. The "Pre-Training homework" is an extensive
series of questions and checklists designed to have participants think
deeply about their goals, their life, the way their families of origin
worked, and the ways they show up in the world. The "Interim Homework"
done between sessions has the participants look closely at their core "issues":
their fears, their hurts, what they love, and their gifts. Some homework
is assigned during the training, but it has been cut down considerably
over the past several years.
Both the 3 and 5 Day are packed with a variety of lectures, discussions,
experiential exercises, writing assignments, sharing opportunities, and
guided meditations. Below I have highlighted the goals and several of the
actual exercises used in the program. I do this with some hesitancy because
it is hard to convey continuity, context, and tone that accompany each
exercise and significantly effect their power and effectiveness. My hope
is that these descriptions will generate conversations that might supply
the needed context.
First, some structural/housekeeping info: the program costs $1,850.
A training is composed of two sessions with a 2-week break between sessions.
The first session (the "3-Day") starts Friday at 5:30 pm and goes until
Sunday at 5:00 pm and a short celebration following. The second session
(the "5-Day") starts two and a half weeks later at 5:30 pm Wednesday night
and continues through Sunday at 5:00 pm followed by another celebration.
(The celebrations are just that: celebrating the participants. Nothing
else. No recruitment. Period). The trainings are offered four times per
year and take place in Sacramento, California. The price includes hotel
accommodations for the 5-Day only.
Define what hurts and what you want changed.
Get familiar with "congruence" – getting body, voice, and emotion working
Become more aware of feelings and how you show up to other people.
Define and experience your self-sabotaging behaviors and your negative
Face those people that taught you the above and feel and speak the emotions
that are present.
Physically release hurts, resentments, and regrets and then move into forgiveness
Learn and practice listening, communication, and compassionate confrontation
Learn effective ways to withstand attacks from others and convert negative
beliefs into positive affirmations.
In the 3-Day, some important exercises (some that you might recognize)
Rules and Confidentiality – the rules are for creating a safe, focused,
and healthy space. They are discussed, objections are validated, addressed
and negotiated, and then finally signed by the participants. Confidentiality
(called by the State of California "the privilege") is addressed in detail.
The participants own "the privilege": because this is considered group
therapy, everything that happens to them is legally protected and must
remain confidential unless they give their written release. This applies
to ANY personal information. This confidentiality covers the facilitators,
the staff, and the participants and all sign an agreement of confidentiality.
Essentially this means that the staff and facilitators cannot say one word
about a participant to anyone outside the training and each participant
has the privilege of talking about their own process as much as they desire
as long as they do not talk about anyone else’s process. There are four
exceptions to this confidentiality in California and those are also covered
in detail (these generally involve imminent danger of a participant hurting
themselves or others). The confidentiality does NOT cover the process itself
– the participants are free to discuss with anyone the exercises, procedures,
Self-Sabotaging Behaviors – participants identify three self-sabotaging
behaviors that harm them or others or hold them back in some way. They
write these behaviors on a plastic bag filled with sand and carry it with
them everywhere for 24 hours.
Dark Mirrors – participants are given feedback from the staff and
other participants on the negative ways they show up in the world or whether
they show up at all. This is not an attacking exercise at all – the purpose
is to give a gift of insight. The participants are encouraged to listen
and critically assess the validity or invalidity of the feedback. They
write about their reactions to the feedback and get to share their feelings
Negative Beliefs – The participants identify three negative beliefs
they have about themselves (e.g. I am stupid, I am ugly, I’m a loser, I’ll
always be broken, etc.)
Opening the Door – During a sharing, the facilitators help each
participant identify the people in their lives that taught them their negative
beliefs (usually parents) or otherwise hurt them. Each participant then
faces these people (in the form of staff members role-playing) and says
the things they need or want to say or have never been able to say before
with any energy that they want. This is a very powerful exercise.
Burns – The participants do three "burns" during the 3-Day. Each
burn, prepared for with writing and sharing, is composed of pounding a
pillow with a bat-like thing (a towel wrapped in duct tape) for about 10
minutes, a short rest, yelling at a wall for about 10 minutes, another
short rest, and then 10 more minutes of pounding a pillow. Each burn has
a theme and the participants each choose who or what they are pounding
about. Each participant has at least one staff coach that reads all that
participant’s homework and remains their coach throughout the training.
This coach acts as both a protagonist and antagonist during the burns both
cheering them on and becoming the voice for their negative self-talk or
the people that hurt them (the coach warns the participant that he/she
will be doing this). For most participants, these burns are extremely cathartic.
At the very least, the burns are physically exhausting and push people
past the limits of where they thought they could go.
Letting Go of Control – Participants lay down on soft mats and are
surrounded by staff with pillows. They are instructed to have a "good,
old-fashioned tantrum" in a completely safe environment. For some, this
is an exhilarating experience. For others, it is a real challenge to let
go of control.
Cognitive Skills – Sunday concentrates on more cognitive skills
that support the emotional clearing and awareness gained in the previous
two days. These cognitive skills involve listening, communicating, confronting,
shielding (protecting one’s self from other’s attacks), changing negative
self-talk, and creating action plans for real change.
Review and extend several 3-Day goals of getting very clear on objectives,
congruence, self-awareness, honesty, and direct communication.
Become much more aware of the hurt and violence in the world and ourselves.
Receive feedback on how we give and take and examine closely what that
means in your life.
Directly and experientially face those people and events that most shaped
your fears, hurts, and blocks, and ultimately to rise above them into strength
Fully experience archetypal energies that may have lain dormant or hidden
within you that can help you toward your goals.
Fully experience with mind and heart what "sacred" means to you.
Experience the world with new awareness and connectedness.
Defending Your Life – Participants experience a plane crash during
a guided meditation and awake in the presence of a kind and gentle guide.
The guide "gifts" the group with two lives: instead of all of them dying
in the crash, two of them will survive. Each participant is given the opportunity
to speak for their life and what they have to live for. The guide helps
them through a voting process to pick the two survivors where each participant
has two "life" votes to cast. This is an intense and very introspective
exercise that involves many complex emotions and there are no wrong answers.
Participants write about their experience and also have the opportunity
to share their feelings and reactions.
Nametags – The facilitators help each participant identity those
aspects of their personality that work against their goals and aspirations.
Each of these "shadows" is written on a nametag and pinned onto the chest
of the participant. Examples might be: "Human Doing" or "Everybody’s Everything"
or "Self Reliant Fool."
Tragedy Pictures and Big Slap exercises – These two exercises run
back-to-back and are designed to truly experience the violence hurt in
the world and that potential in ourselves in a protected, safe, and appropriate
way. The Tragedy Pictures are just that: a series of real-life photos of
the violence around the world. The Big Slap is an exercise where participants
pair off and look at each other during a powerful reading while holding
their hands up as if ready to slap their partner. The exercise ends in
hugs, not slaps. These are very powerful exercises.
Givers and Takers – Participants vote "Giver" or "Taker" for each
of their group-mates. After the vote, those that received all "Takers"
or all "Givers" process their reactions, receive specific feedback, ask
questions, and express their feelings. The whole concept of what is a Taker
and a Giver is examined and how the balance of the two helps create balanced
Connections – This process spans a day and a half and is, for most
participants, the most impactful and important of the entire training.
This is a completely participant-led process where each participant, aided
by a staffer-coach that has been with the participant for the entire training,
identifies and resolves, the major issues and blocks that they face. The
participant decides which issues are dealt with and how they are to be
resolved. The coach is there for support, honest feedback, guidance when
needed, and to make happen those scenes, events, people, and behaviors
that the participant wishes to deal with. Many techniques are employed
such as role-playing, props, Gestalt methods, empty chair dialogs, and
catharsis in many forms. This truly is a magical process of healing and
Stretches – Each participant is given an archetypal persona to assume
for a day. This archetype is chosen by the staff to "stretch" an underused
or undeveloped part of a participant. The culmination of this "stretch"
is when the participant, in full costume, dances in character for 20 –
30 minutes in front of the other participants and staff in an extremely
supportive, energetic, and fun atmosphere. There are over 30 different
stretches; some examples are: Bruce Springstein, Gandhi, Shirley Temple,
African Warrior King, and Tina Turner.
Celebrate Your Sacred Self – This is a very special and open exercise
where participants express, in any way that is right for them, what is
sacred to them. The only rule is that they cannot talk – the expression
is done through any combination of miming, singing, drawing, or dancing.
This is a very moving and deeply personal gift each participant gives.
- Essence Walk – The last exercise before the participants
graduate is for them to go to a mall or other place where there are many
people. Their assignment is to go alone into this place and talk with a
stranger and find a gift. The participants come back and report on what
the real world was like and what gift or gifts they received. After eight
days of hard, personal work, usually people see the world much differently
and discover gifts they never before looked for.
The price of the training includes admission to six
weekly aftercare meetings. The aftercare, called Living in the Light,
meets year-around on Tuesday nights from 6:30 to about 9:30 p.m. and is
available for all graduates. We believe that aftercare is an important
part of this program because dramatic transformation, no matter how
positive, can destabilize primary relationships, friendships and work.
Living in the Light gives all graduates a safe place to work through these
changes, learn more skills, and celebrate their successes. These meeting
are run by experienced facilitators and are available on a walk-in basis
for $25 per weekly session. For graduates that need individualized
counseling, referrals to qualified therapists is available.
About the Author
a Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology, has been involved with deep,
therapeutic change for five years. He has worked as a trainer,
facilitator, consultant, executive coach, and senior-level manager for
over twenty years. He currently serves as Staff Administrator for Next
Level Intensive, an indepth, eight-day small-group therapy program. He can
be reached via email at email@example.com
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