How I Learned to Lose Love at a Psycho-Spiritual Retreat About Forgiveness
(This is a personal essay, forthcoming in Elle magazine)
by Emma Pearse
“Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. And ask your camel for a message.”
It was day five of the seven day Hoffman Process, “an experiential learning retreat” for adults who are “serious about change.” I was in the midst of one of many surprise exercises in which we were tapping into our inner children and spiritual selves. My glamorous teacher, Jane, had just gifted me a little furry soft toy —a “curly camel” with tight little brunette curls, a wisp of a Mr Miyagi-style beard and a ribbon wrapped around his neck. I hugged my camel to my chest, closed my eyes and listened.
“Let’s dance!” the camel said to me. “Let’s dance!” I blurted out.
My glee was met with a burst of applause in a cozy classroom, as 37 of my adult friends sat cross-legged on the carpet in front of me, cheering.
Me and 37 strangers, all in some degree of personal crisis had met just five days ago on this bushy 45 acre retreat site at the end of a windy road in Napa Valley. Outside the classroom, redwood trees soared in the wintry California weather and a hot tub was set to 103 degrees, around the clock.
“Ten years of therapy in seven days” is one way of describing The Hoffman Process, started in 1967 by Bob Hoffman, a mostly regular guy who was intrigued by, basically, why people are so bad at love. Hoffman gathered guidance and research from doctors and psychotherapists to develop the Negative Love Syndrome, which poses that many of us are ruled by disconnect-y behaviors that make love and friendship far more discordant—and for some, near impossible—than they need to be. We learn these behaviors—anger, defensiveness, judgment, fear of abandonment, being annoyed, self righteousness, martyrdom, zoning out and hundreds more—from our parents via emulation or as self protection, often during moments of trauma in our childhoods. Separation and parental abandonment is a big catalyst, for example—from the day-to-day variety experienced by most babies of working parents to psyche-challenging situations like adoption or worse, abandonment. And while crying inconsolably or yelling impulsively might have helped us survive as little ones, they are continually messing things up for us as adults.
I’d signed up for “the Process” in a state of despair just two weeks earlier, my heart feeling more ruptured than I could handle. Just two weeks earlier, I’d needed to hug that curly camel so badly. A man I’d fallen in love with had just broken up with me in an all too familiar way.
There was love and there was talk of forever. But I was in pain. I kept flinching and reacting to moments that should have been simpler. We had two epic, wounding fights.
My therapist, who had already helped me through a heartbreak not five months earlier, said, “You are traumatized and need to heal. Try everything you can.”
Instead of my usual response of guzzling the bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, I started reading. Something about this breakup was different. I’d visited this lonely place too many times—divorced dramatically four years ago, two warm but ill-fated relationships followed and now a third that was ending when it had barely began. Suddenly, I was seeing patterns: in love and in my working life, it was as though tumult would rumble in, just as the universe seemed to open.
My heart was on fire. I felt paralyzed and haunted. Time after time, I’d lost myself, tasting almost blood at the panic over even gentle criticism and in the face of any potential rejection. At points during the last fight, I’d had almost out-of body experiences: I was at the door of my childhood bedroom and it wasn’t my lover I was fighting with but my Dad. Then I was my four-year old self, standing on the driveway, begging my mother who I saw only every two weeks not to leave.
It was really, really spooky.
I knew I needed to do something drastic.
It turns out, those visits to my childhood were “very Hoffman.”
The Hoffman Process is all about tapping into the four aspects of ourselves that make us whole—our emotional, intellectual, physical and spiritual selves. The goal is to ultimately forgive our parents so that we can forgive ourselves and, well, move on. For some, that was a repulsive idea. There were people there who had been beaten, abandoned, emotionally abused. Others had sweeter relationships and yet something wasn’t right. And Hoffman’s thinking aligned with much theory and research on the inextricable link between our adult behavior and bonding with our primary caregivers.
“We should take care not to make the intellect our god,” said Einstein. “It has, of course, powerful muscles, but no personality. It cannot lead; it can only serve.”
Imagine something between Star Wars—it’s a battle against the dark side—and this season of Transparent, in which the anxieties and quirks of the Pfefferman family are traced gothically to the anxieties and hardships of two generations earlier. Maybe throw in a scene from the emotions-mean-survival Inside Out, and you have the Hoffman Process.
“Miracles by Thursday. I promise,” said a woman named Candace with friendly green eyes when I arrived two weeks after my break up to White Sulphur Springs, which neighbors suburban homes, rows of grape fields, and an old cemetery. White Sulphur Springs is the Hoffman headquarters— there are also 13 international Hoffman sites and one other U.S. outpost in Connecticut. Some people had private cozy cottages amid overgrown walking paths. I shared a room with my new friend Lee and we slept in single beds side by side, waking to drizzly mornings, birds singing… and the occasional waft of pungent sulphur from the toxin-sucking springs running through the property.
“Embrace the weird,” I’d been told before signing up.
Given that I was almost crawling around NYC by the time I flew to Oakland, I thought: how about, for once in my life, I just believe it. Miracles by Thursday? I’ll take them.
Every day at 7.30 a.m., we ate excellent oatmeal and scrambled eggs and coffee that was brewed—and needed—until 10 p.m. All 38 of us tumbled into that dining room for three delicious feeding sessions a day, sometimes ecstatic—like Liz Lemon, high-fiving a million angels. Other times, we stayed monastery-style silent.
Then, caffeinated, we took our name-tagged seats in a U-shape.
“Close your eyes,” is how most mornings began. And then, not to get too dramatic, the 38 of us fought for our lives.
Our four teachers made us do weird, weird things like whisper sweet things to ourselves as babies. We beat pillows with mallets until our hands bled and yelled at our parents for all the times we’ve been broken up with or lost our jobs or spent entire months in bed depressed because, it turned out, of their shit.
“Tell them that you’re sick and tired of this pain,” the teachers egged us on.
By 10 a.m. on day one, I’d met my spiritual self. By 11 a.m. on day two, I had my first breakdown, slumped against a wall sobbing. After years and years on the therapist’s couch, I’d never come close to the awakening I had at this retreat.
I was adopted at six weeks old, and my adoptive parents divorced unamicably when I was 18 months old. There were other things, darker things that had had their clutches on me, that I thought I’d dealt with years ago on the couch. But I realized I hadn’t really faced them. Because I “could have been starving in Ethiopia”—a favorite parental saying—I’ve spent a lifetime shrugging off the childhood traumas that were most impactful.
After Hoffman, ignoring that shit is no longer an option. “I feel high,” I sang from the back seat of a car, nine days later. My new friends-for-life Steve and Michelle smiled with glazed eyes in the rear vision mirror, as Steve drove us towards Oakland Airport around that windy wine-region road, past the cemetery where we decided that our old lives belonged.
There were miracles by Thursday. The changes feel physical. My heart and guts don’t feel wrapped in barbed wire. There’s more space in my breath, more time between thoughts. I barely drink. If I flinch when talking to my parents or walking around manic New York City, I envision us all as hopeful, scared eight-year olds, sharing icecream on a river bank, just trying to be in the world. And trippy things happen— my friend Patrick has discovered that the little black birds that visited him every morning at White Sulphur Springs are called “Phoebe Birds.” Phoebe is the name of his daughter. And Jimmy, who had been estranged from some of his family for decades, reported that the week he was at Hoffman, his long lost aunt was suddenly compelled to visit him.
Meanwhile, I am still single. Hoffman doesn't magically erase the fallout from my negative love patterns and I came back to my NYC life as raw as I was blissed out. “Be very curious,” Liza Ingrasci, Hoffman’s CEO, told me. “You will look back and see how important this time is for sorting out and becoming more of who you are.” As the days go, I talk to my spiritual self daily and now I’m someone who has teachers. I revisit my meltdowns. I listen, listen, listen. And I take some comfort in a moment from a visit with my ex after my retreat. Crying on the floor— I miss him; the loss still sears—I was nudged by the nose of his beautiful dog who dropped something into my lap. It was the soft toy camel I’d hugged for a life message not long ago. I looked into those soft, brown dog eyes, squeezed his little head in my hands and said, “let’s dance.”