A History of Come Alive by its Creators

By Bennet Wong & Jock McKeen

The excellent video about Come Alive on the Haven website states that “Since 1983 Come Alive has helped thousands of people communicate better, experience life more fully, improve their relationships and develop health in mind, body and spirit.” To this we would add “… at The Haven.” For the Come Alive program was already over a decade old when we moved to Gabriola Island in 1983 to establish The Haven (or simply Haven as we knew it in those days). Furthermore, the program existed in preliminary form before it acquired the name “Come Alive.” Ben developed the precursor to it in the late 1960s and we re-named it “Come Alive” sometime in the 1970s. So, by the time we came to Gabriola and founded The Haven, Come Alive was already a developed program. Remarkably, it has remained much as it was, with only minor variations throughout all these years. It is the key program that runs through the programming at The Haven, and indeed, is the cornerstone of the school’s educational series.

The Background

So, how did it come to be, and what went into its development? Both of us identified with the Human Potential Movement of the late sixties. When Jock came west to continue his medical training, he was already involved in nontraditional therapies, and we found a ready fit with each other in our desire to blend the science of Western medicine with the art of interpersonal communication. We were both trained in traditional Western medicine, which emphasizes science over interhuman concerns. We wanted to find a more harmonious balance between the objectivity of science and the art of human interaction. In 1970 when we met, Jock was a recent medical graduate, completing a hospital internship; he had a deep interest in youth after his stint in drug crisis centres in Ontario during medical school. Ben had been practising adolescent psychiatry for a decade, and was frequently featured in the media as a professional spokesperson regarding issues of youth. We were both interested in energy ideas. Jock studied acupuncture and Eastern medical ideas about energy in England, and upon his return, we both studied Reichian breathing therapy together. We endeavoured to integrate Western psychology and medicine with Eastern energy ideas into a comprehensive approach to working with people. We discuss this project in detail in our newest book The Illuminated Heart: Perspectives on East-West Psychology and Thought.

We offer here a few words about the social atmosphere in the early 70s when we met and began to work together. It was an optimistic time of questioning old ways, and bringing forth new ideas that put people at the centre. This was the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, in which young people were dreaming of a new world order with people caring for each other and for the planet. The cultural atmosphere was of joining, of a planetary awareness. This human perspective was the forerunner of ecological movements, which began at the same time. We were all citizens of the planet, we all belonged, and we were all on the same team — the human team. This positivism was summed up in Joni Mitchell’s lyrics:

“We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”

Joni’s lyrics echoed the idea that people had gone astray, had lost themselves in the increasingly complex, fast-paced world of technology, which was beginning to be evident. Little did we know how extensive this was to become! People wanted to find their way back to a harmonious way of living with nature and other people. This was the garden they sought — human based, living harmoniously with nature and each other.

Youth was a force in 1970, the heady days of a cultural revolution. Old ways were questioned, and optimism abounded. Young people challenged the old order which they saw as isolating, embracing a new consciousness of participation, of joining. There were social experiments with different life styles; in these investigations, freedom of expression, and a search for the self were common features. Ram Dass’ suggestion “Be here now” acknowledged how people were becoming lost in past focus, and future desires. We were part of this atmosphere, and “Be present” was evidently a path to vitality. Commonly, people had a desire to “get high” and “get connected.” Our goal was to find a natural path to what was called “higher consciousness”, without drugs or artificial aids.

In our own personal search, we found a ready fit with existential ideas that placed human concerns at the heart of experience. We had a growing interest in Zen, awareness, higher consciousness, interconnection, and philosophies of one-ness. During this period, many others were pursuing similar goals, and we met many of them. Abraham Maslow had proposed a psychology of being rather than doing. Carl Rogers developed this into a therapeutic stance of engagement and deep listening. Virginia Satir and Carl Whitaker saw people as part of the family system. James Bugental and Rollo May were bringing the notions of self-responsibility and awareness into psychology. Maurice Friedman was furthering Martin Buber’s work in dialogue. Joseph Campbell wrote of the ancient myths of connection, and legends of initiations into secret understandings of human beings, life and nature. There was a resurgence of interest in Reichian energy theory, accompanied by the popularity of body awareness, yoga, and various breathing and meditative practices. Ben met Paul Reps and Alan Watts in the late 60s and introduced Jock to these remarkable men; we were both taken with their iconoclastic questioning of the status quo, and their appealing, calming invocation of the ways of the East. We did not know Fritz Perls well; but Barry Stevens, an early gestalt pioneer, was an affectionate friend and colleague, as were John Enright and Erv and Miriam Polster.

We ourselves focused on relationships as the path to enlightenment and higher health. We subscribed to the notion from Chinese medicine that people become ill when their qi energy (life force energy) becomes constricted or withheld. We associated this notion with the idea from gestalt that restrictions in the contact cycle impede growth and development. But we were loathe to accept the popular therapy idea of the time that one needed to engage with a practitioner to work one’s way through the morass. This seemed to us to be overly dependent upon externals, and out of keeping with the self-responsible position of the existentialists. So, we wanted a “do-it-yourself” model, and relationship to us has always been the key to this. When people hold back from each other by not sharing thoughts or feelings, or lack a genuine concern and curiosity for others that invites engagement, they become isolated, constricted, and their energy is lessened. Thus, we have always encouraged people to contact and engage and share, not because it is a morally virtuous path, but because it is life-giving and life-enhancing. When people engage in deepening relationships, each is the better for it.

From Medical Practice to Growth Groups

We introduced these ideas into our respective medical practices, and became increasingly involved in group process seminars. Ben developed a five-day program he titled “Self-Awareness: Experiential Program” which was the forerunner of the Come Alive program. Jock, who was newer to the scene, accompanied him, first as his assistant, and later as co-leader. The idea of the day was that people could be more than healthy — we could grow, expand, develop, into the “farther reaches of human nature.”

We had many hours discussing life and nature and psychology on the seven-hour drive (with three ferries) between Vancouver and Cortes Island, where we conducted the groups. In our Vancouver practices (Ben in adolescent psychiatry, Jock in acupuncture and counselling), we experienced the limitation of the “therapeutic hour.” People would achieve insights, and often feel better in their appointments, only to lose the ground they had gained by going back to their accustomed habits in between sessions. We found that the gains that people were making in residential groups seemed more substantial, and the research we did on program participants verified what we had witnessed — people learned more in groups, and their transformations were more persistent.

We gradually transitioned from urban private practice, devoting more and more time to residential growth groups. We began to use the experiential tools we were using in the groups with the clients in our private practice, offering breathing and body work, and interpersonal communication processes. As our clients became interested in communication, they would practice in the waiting room, and commonly would invite each other into their individual appointments. Sometimes at the end of the day, there would be a half dozen people gathered in each of our respective offices, practising communication with each other. Remarkably, Jock’s acupuncture patients, who were more elderly, also embraced this unusual activity, and there was a mixture of old and young in these assemblies. We began to dream of having a centre in the country where we could invite clients for the day, so that they could enjoy their interactions in a more natural setting. When we were invited to lead a three-month program on Cortes Island, we eagerly accepted, and never went back to urban practice.

In 1975, we closed our practices, and moved to the country to devote the rest of our professional careers to group process work. We were Program Directors of a three-month residential seminar called “The Resident Fellow Program” which was a forerunner of the Phase Programs, which we developed. We also conducted numerous Come Alive programs on Cortes Island each year.

Living on Cortes Island, we hosted the different group leaders that came from around North America to teach at Cold Mountain Institute, the growth centre where we worked. We would have a different person from the growth movement in our living room each week, with active and animated discussions. During this time, we hosted such people as Stan Grof, Joseph Campbell, yogi Joel Kramer, George Leonard, Robert Shapiro, Tai Ji master Al Huang, Barry Stevens, Carl Whitaker, Virginia Satir, Maria Gomori, John Enright, Paul Reps, Alan Watts, John Blofeld, Gregory Bateson, Carl and Stephanie Simonton, poet Robin Blaser, and a host of others. Everyone was excited at the new possibilities for human beings, and our friendships flourished in the atmosphere of investigation and discovery.

Our Relationship Experiment

We were determined that we would not ask clients to do anything that we ourselves had not experienced. Thus, we became the subjects for practitioners of different breathing and body approaches, so that we could know what our clients might experience with these methods. Besides being clients ourselves, we studied the techniques as practitioners, and incorporated what we learned into our approach with the people who came to see us professionally. The core of our personal work with each other focused on our “relationship experiment.” We had decided that defences and blockages interpersonally would inhibit physical wellbeing, and restrict emotional health and vitality. So, we set out to learn about our defences with each other, to identify them and work past them, towards more and more openness, honesty and sharing. This was the cornerstone of our own personal search. Our agreement was to be open, clear, direct, honest and revelatory, as well as caring, contactful and curious with each other. The models we hypothesized were to help understand what we were discovering, so that we could continue to go deeper with each other. We developed the Come Alive program around these ideas we were learning. Our notion was that people could experience much more vitality and wellbeing, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Our main method was interpersonal. We proposed that an open mind and an open heart invite open communication, which brings energetic resonance and wellbeing between people. We still stand behind that proposition today.

We are continuing our relationship experiment together over 40 years later. We use the same tools in our personal daily life that are taught in the Come Alive. We affirm that dialogue is the key to a healthy happy life. We encourage the participants in our seminars to learn to communicate humanly, and to take these principles home to develop an intimate relationship with someone else. When one has a friend who knows you, cares about you and whom you know and care about, healing and enhancement of life’s meaning can occur.

The Come Alive Program

The Come Alive has always been a five-day program, with three sessions each day. In the early years, there were no small groups; the large group met with us as leaders each morning, afternoon and evening. Later, when we developed the intern training program, we began to divide the large group into smaller evening groups, conducted by the trainees. As this occurred, the size of the Come Alive grew from 14 participants to a common size of 36-40. Although the Come Alive program is experiential, with didactic teaching at a minimum, the leaders do teach a number of models that help to understand the elements of communicating and relating. When we helped to establish The Haven as a nonprofit charity, passing ownership from ourselves and our sons into the nonprofit structure, we gave these models to The Haven. A brief description of these models follows.

The Communication Model is at the heart of the Come Alive process. Participants study the elements of interaction and dialogue, and begin to practice them in the group. The goal is that each can take these tools home, to live them with their family and friends. There is a deeply existentialist root in this model; we assume we are each alone; I can’t know your world except through my own eyes. I don’t really know you; I know my version of you, which is an amalgam of my perceptions, interpretations and feelings. But my impressions of you are just that; I can only guess at what your world is. At the same time, I can have respect for you, and openness to experience your world. The communication process is a vehicle to open a phenomenological dialogue, to meet as persons beyond judgments and impressions. In our recent book The Illuminated Heart, we introduce the Dynamic Empathy model, which describes a movement from isolation through objectification to contact and connection, to resonance to inclusion. At the heart of this process is communication — learning to respond to another with an open heart and an open mind. We are different, we are separate, and we can learn about each other through open and curious communication.

The Selves Model: We have found that people get in their own way by objectifying themselves as performers rather than beings. The notion of self-criticism and self hate has helped us to understand a significant part of people’s self-interruption. A life of striving limits being present, keeping the individual stuck in a morass of future/past hopes and regrets. The Selves model helps to explain this, and we encourage people to see the value in the mastery of self-acceptance.

The Power and Strength Model: The model of power and strength has been a very difficult one for people to deeply understand; yet, it is very important in understanding the factors that help or hinder communication. Both Eastern and Western cultures tend to validate people for becoming powerful and dominant, rather than cooperative and engaging. We emphasize the importance of curiosity, caring and empathy, all aspects of an attitude of strength and self-acceptance. We propose a new view of the world in which people harmonize, communicate and connect rather than dominate and objectify.

The Resonance Model: In this conception, the individualistic isolated loneliness of conventional life is shown to be a byproduct of the closure that accompanies the pursuit of power. When people learn to open to themselves and each other, to share ideas, feelings and experiences, they can inhabit their strength, participating in the energy fields of life through resonance. Associated with this are the concepts of energy freeing that comes with breathing and permitting life to flow within. Thus, each Come Alive teaches methods of breathing and energy release and integration.

The Come Alive program is a medium in which people can investigate communication, self-compassion, and the mastery of strength rather than the habitual achievement of power. The three models just noted deal with different facets of this life-enhancing viewpoint. They are taught in all the Come Alive programs.

The Relationship Model is taught in detail in the Living Alive Phase II program, and in other relationships seminars. However, the basic theme of this model parallels the Come Alive models we have described. By opening, listening, and communicating, people can resonate with each other, and become co-creatively expansive. Each person can learn deep things through this process, and discover a personal felt meaning of life. People are revealed to themselves and each other in a dialogue of intimacy and sharing. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde,

The Book of Life begins with [two people] in a garden … It ends with Revelations.

Expanding our Scope: Come Alive “On the Road”

After leading seminars in B.C., we began to take the Come Alive teaching further afield in the early 1980s, first across Canada, and later to other countries. We took our “show on the road” when we developed the Cortes Centre for Human Development (the last organization we worked with before establishing The Haven). We conducted Come Alive workshops, and gave other presentations, in Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, Winnipeg, Toronto, and Halifax. We traveled in Europe with Maria Gomori, and we conducted workshops in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Between 1970 and 2008, we taught at psychology and medical conferences in North America, Asia and in Europe, spreading the ideas about the importance of relationships, and our conceptions of energy, resonance and health. We also gave presentations at acupuncture congresses in China and the U.S.

We have been interviewed numerous times on radio and television and in the press in our attempt to seed the ideas to popular culture. In particular, we worked with Access Alberta to create a series of radio interviews with Larry Shorter in the 1970s. In the 1980s, we were on the Alan Thicke Show and the Don Harron Show as frequent guests. Amidst the movie stars and public figures, we were known as the “heavy furniture”, since we addressed serious issues in the midst of presentations of current pop culture.

We went to China in 1987 to learn more classical Chinese medicine, and were surprised and humbled to find that the Chinese people wanted to learn from us; much of what we had assembled was more advanced than the teaching of the day in China. Thus began our crosscultural engagement, first in Hong Kong, and later in Taiwan. Eventually, we taught the Come Alive process in numerous countries in Asia, and ultimately in mainland China in 2006. In the 1990s, we developed a relationship with Shiuh Li Liuh Foundation in Taiwan, with a number of organizations in Hong Kong, and in mainland China. In this century, we have also been consulting with two organizations in China, Hai Wen and Hua Wei Technologies.

When we took this model to Asia, we would conduct Come Alives for 100 people. We used the small group format; but in this circumstance, all the small groups (of about 12-14 people, conducted by an assistant leader) would be in the same large room. So, we had a many-ring circus, with each group doing a similar process at the same time. To accomplish this challenge, we brought other leaders with us. Joann Peterson and Linda Nicholls accompanied us very early on; a host of other Canadian leaders followed, and the cross-cultural sharing progressed. Then the Chinese people asked Ben and me to teach Phase Programs in Asia. We told them we would not leave our home base at Haven for such a lengthy commitment; so, we instead counterproposed that they come to The Haven to have programs in Chinese-English. Thus began the Miniphase programs at Haven, which commenced in the mid-1990s and continue today. Now, in addition, there are full-length Phase programs at Haven, conducted in Chinese and English.

Incidentally, we extended this idea of simultaneous groups in one large room when we developed the Communicating and Connecting program for Hua Wei Technologies in our world-wide training for their managers. Although this was not a Come Alive program, we taught the main models, and emphasized communication and sharing in this business-oriented adaptation, which lasted two days each time. We conducted seminars for up to 300 managers who were assembled from dozens of countries, with the smaller group “pods” being 20 in number. In one remarkable instance at their main centre in China, we had over 800 people in the same room in this format. In these circumstances, there was no assistant leader! We conducted the groups from the front of the room with a microphone and Power Point overhead slides in two languages — somehow it worked! This training took us to China, South America, Russia, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa in the first decade of this century.

Developing The Haven School

As we taught far afield, we always returned to “home base”, The Haven on Gabriola Island. As more and more people embraced our teaching, they came to The Haven to learn in the established programs. All our models are extensions of the Communication Model and the Come Alive process we had developed from our relationship experiment. As The Haven matured, with more participants, more buildings, more leaders and more topics, we continued to teach these models as the core of the Haven philosophy. More and more interns came, and we formally developed a bona fide school, which we registered as an educational institution in the province of B.C. Our faculty grew; they were teaching others how to teach, while continuing to learn themselves.

Relationship of our Books to The Haven’s Programs

We began to write about our experiences and our models in the 1980s, first in a journal we developed called Heartwood. At The Haven, we began a new journal, Shen, which had semiannual printed versions for many years. Now the Shen publication is part of The Haven’s online offering. We wrote articles in each issue expanding our ideas and perspectives on the models we were teaching. Eventually, these articles were collected into a spiral-bound booklet; we eventually edited these papers, and they formed the basis for the first Manual For Life, which was published in 1992. Since then, we have published our other books to elaborate the conceptual aspects of our teachings, and established The Haven Institute Press as the publishing arm of the institute and school.

The New Manual For Life contains the material covered in Come Alive and in Phase I. The Relationship Garden was written from the experiences of teaching Phase II and is an appropriate accompaniment to that program. Some of our teaching stories are assembled in In and Out of Our Own Way; these stories often were told in Come Alive programs. We published a volume of Jock’s poetry, with Ben’s commentary titled As It Is in Heaven; these poems describe our experiences together, and our travels and encounters with people and situations that have enrichened our lives. We wrote A Book About Health and Happiness to begin to address the material in Phase III: New Horizons; we returned to address the full scope of our work in our recent book The Illuminated Heart, which is a summary of our perspectives on relationships, life, energy and healing. Many of the earlier books are now translated into Chinese, and Health and Happiness also is in Spanish. Work is now underway to offer The Illuminated Heart in Chinese; as well, this book will be soon published in e-book formats.

Spiritual Practice

Some have criticized us and The Haven for not having a specific spiritual practice, for being too secular in our humanistic values. We do value spirituality, while we often find that dogmatic religious affiliations can operate toward separations, rather than joining. Our goal has always been ecumenical and inclusive and diversely incorporative. So, we believe in each person finding his or her own path to spirit, which to us is synonymous with one’s personal felt meaning. Thus, we have tried to sponsor seminars that teach various spiritual practices without proposing any one. Our own personal spiritual practice is the Communication Model.

For us, Reps’ Zen style of celebrating every little moment has infused the teachings at The Haven. He once came into a room and said, “Do you want a miracle? …. Make a tight fist, as hard as you can … harder! Now release! It’s a miracle!”

A key to self-development for us is the release from the constricting view of self-doubt and self-deprecation. We learn to love ourselves and each other by opening up, connecting and sharing with others in a caring way. Paul Williams says that we can find our place in the garden of life:

The only sin is self-hatred.

We call it sin but its true name is Delusion.

We have got to get ourselves back to the Garden.

Easily done.

We are in the Garden.

Let us open our eyes.



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