'If this is a dodgy hippie love-cult, sign me up!'
Jane Alexander attends The Path of Love retreat and experiences real transformation
With her marriage in tatters and self-esteem at an all-time low, writer Jane Alexander sought solace at The Path of Love retreat expecting yet another mellow hippie love-in. What she got was crying, screaming, punching – and a life-transforming outcome
I always hoped that, as I hit my mid-50s, I’d have sorted out my angst. Over the years, I had undergone endless hours of therapy and attended countless retreats. I thought I would have cleared the trauma of growing up with an abusive grandfather and the unresolved grief from having a depressed, alcoholic father who had died when I was ten.
Yet, with my marriage in tatters, my career in free-fall and my self-esteem on the floor, I was clearly as much of a mess as ever – petrified of the future and in thrall to the past. So the chance to attend The Path of Love (POL), a week-long retreat held in Mid-Wales, seemed serendipitous.
The Path of Love is a week-long retreat held in Mid-Wales
The website called it ‘an intense and effective developmental process’ that could ‘improve relationships, release fear, boost confidence, increase feelings of self-worth and restore a level of trust in the world and other people’.
So far, so much like all the other intensive retreats out there (the Hoffman Process, The Bridge, the Penninghame Process and so on).
However, POL is the brainchild of Turiya Hanover and Rafia Morgan, former followers of Osho, the controversial Indian mystic once dubbed the ‘Love Guru’. It had dodgy hippie love-cult written all over it.
I arrived in the dark, bumping down a long country lane until a Victorian mansion reared up through the mist, as if auditioning for a Hammer Horror movie.
As I entered the hallway, bright-eyed smiling people with clipboards bustled new arrivals through registration. Disclaimer forms were signed, rules read and agreed (total confidentiality, no smoking, no alcohol, no violence, no sex – so that was my first assumption quashed); a name badge was fixed to my sweater and my water bottle was also name-tagged. First day at the Path of Love.
Over supper I chatted with my fellow participants (around 40 people, ranging in age from 30s to 60s, marginally more women than men, mainly middle-class professionals). The vast majority were there through word of mouth – people they knew had sworn it was the best thing they had ever done, even that it had changed their lives.
A few were buoyantly confident; most were as wide-eyed and uncertain as me. Afterwards, we filed into a large room for the opening address.
‘This is a new beginning, a second chance,’ said Rafia in a warm American accent. ‘All of you will come out of this experience transformed.’
He smiled widely and nodded at our cynical expressions. ‘You will. It happens again and again. Just go inside – meet yourself 100 per cent.’
We were then split into smaller groups of nine or ten. ‘By the end of this week, these people will probably know you better than your family, your friends, anyone,’ said Rafia.
Chairs were then set up in a horseshoe formation with our two facilitators, Turiya and Kalid, standing at the open end. Behind us, eight staff members sat in two rows behind a table. The friendly smiles had gone; they stared blankly, impassively.
‘They look like a jury,’ whispered the woman next to me. More ground rules followed. From now on there would be no casual chatter – we would only speak as part of the process, during exercises or sharing time. We handed in our phones, laptops and iPads in exchange for pens and folders.
You can’t hide away on this retreat. Several times a day you talk about your deepest fears, hurts and terrors – not quietly from your chair but standing in front of your small group and its entourage. You admit to the dark and murky sides to your personality; the bits you don’t usually like to show – the egotist, the racist, the coward, the bully, the lazy slob. It’s both terrifying and liberating. Then come the ‘burn meditations’.
The word ‘meditation’ is misleading as this is a million miles away from serene sitting in a lotus position – it’s catharsis, pure and simple.
Mattresses are laid out around the huge main hall along with pillows and rolled-up towels. You take your position and the music starts. I don’t know any other retreats that have their own DJ, and certainly not one that specialises in music as primal therapy. The tracks are chosen to trigger emotions – grief, anger, frustration, loss – Prince’s ‘When Doves Cry’, U2’s ‘With Or Without You’, Madonna’s ‘Like a Prayer’, Rag’n’Bone Man’s ‘Human’… There are few instructions.
‘The longing of the heart will take you where you need to go,’ said Rafia. ‘The aim is to wake up your body, to get it to feel and release, in whatever way it needs.’
For me, the tears came quickly and I spent most of the session sitting, softly crying, on my mattress. A staff member came over and gently stroked my shoulder. ‘Is this OK?’ asked a woman’s voice.
I nodded, and she softly held me against her. It struck me how sensitive and compassionate the process was. Before you’re accepted on to the retreat, you have a Skype or in-person interview with one of the facilitators, so that they can get an idea of your issues and ascertain whether the process will suit you.
I had explained that sexual and physical abuse in my family stretched back generations, and that we also had a legacy of depression (my uncle had committed suicide) and a tendency towards alcohol abuse.
I confessed how much I hated my body and how much shame I still had around sexuality. So the staff clearly imagined that physical contact with men would be too confrontational for me at this stage.
The tenderness made me cry even harder. I was exhausted, worn out by trying to be strong and tough and in control. I still felt a combination of hurt, confusion and disbelief over the abuse that runs in my family, as well as desperately sad for the little girl who had been so badly betrayed by those she trusted most.
Author Jane Alexander: 'I battled until I was exhausted. My legs could no longer support me and I collapsed on to the floor, rocking backwards and forwards, quietly crying'
I went to bed that night with a crashing headache and pains shooting through my body. The tension in my jaw, my shoulders and my neck was excruciating and I curled up into a foetal position.
I swallowed a couple of painkillers and lay thinking about how much shame and hatred I carried. When I did eventually drop off to sleep, it was to tormented dreams of a woman clawing at my face, screaming: ‘Where did you bury the body?’ It didn’t take an analyst to realise I was still fighting myself, even in my sleep.
The next day, as I stood in front of the group, I felt something well up in my throat and I screamed – so loudly and so shrilly that I feared I would pierce my own eardrums. Then the anger came. I had no idea I harboured that level of rage – flashes of annoyance, yes, but fury? No. Yet there it was.
I was angry with my father for giving up and dying on me, for abandoning me. Bubbling behind that hurt came resentment towards my husband for not being the strong man I had yearned for. It hit me just how unsupported I had always felt, physically, financially and emotionally.
I stood in front of my group and glared at the men, both my fellow participants and the male staff in the group seated beyond. I could feel the venom boiling up as I stabbed a finger at them and spat out my words. ‘Where the f*** are the strong men in my life?’ I snarled. ‘I’m f***ing sick of being surrounded by weak men! When has a man ever been there for me – really there for me? Never! I’m sick of you, I’m sick of the lot of you!’
This time, when the burn meditation started, the women had gone and it was all male members of staff around me. I looked at one of them, just standing there, and saw red. ‘Bring it on!’ I yelled at him and started punching at the protective cushion he was holding. It wasn’t angry enough; it wasn’t vicious enough, so I drew back and hurled myself at him. Another guy came to support him and then another as I threw myself at them again and again, barging and bashing with my shoulders like a demented rugby player.
My hair was thick with sweat, any mascara had long since slid down my face but I didn’t give a damn as I lashed out. Scared that I might actually hurt the frontman, I twisted myself out of direct contact and felt something give in my ribcage. The thought flashed through my head – when I don’t express myself truly, who do I hurt? Myself. Just myself.
I battled until I was exhausted. My legs could no longer support me and I collapsed on to the floor, rocking backwards and forwards, quietly crying. Arms came around me as one of the guys sank down behind me, clasping me against him. He was so strong yet so gentle, it undid me. This was what I had missed – a man holding me, without wanting anything in return, just being there, strong and protective yet tender.
And it wasn’t a cursory cuddle; he stayed with me for more than an hour, just stroking my hair, soothing me as, every so often, the tears returned. I don’t know if this kind of unconditional love can seep into one’s cells, but it felt that way. My heart cracked wide open.
That night, as we sat quietly around a log fire, Rafia asked: ‘If you were to die today, would you feel you had truly lived your life?’ He paused. ‘Have you truly loved?’ I shook my head and felt the tears again.
I’ve always been afraid of love. I’ve held back, kept myself closed, too terrified that, if I opened my heart entirely, it would be broken all over again. It wasn’t just love either. I was scared of living life to the full, worried that if I were truly myself, people would find me too much.
Over the years I had dimmed my light. I was living at maybe 20 per cent of my actual capacity. On day five, the shift came. For the first time during the burn meditation, I didn’t collapse or cry or lash out. I stood tall and danced, firstly with my eyes shut, just enjoying the feeling of freedom in my body.
When I opened my eyes I realised I was dancing in front of a group of men and it felt just fine. In fact, I loved it. The rest of the week was sheer joy. For someone who has always recoiled from group hugs, who isn’t even comfortable with prolonged eye contact, I was stunned to find myself snuggling and curling up like a puppy with my small group.
This disparate band of people had grown to feel like a warm, supportive family who loved me despite all my shortcomings, foibles and phobias.
My body savoured the touch like a long cool drink in the desert.
It’s a crazy process, this Path of Love. What other retreat uses mammoth dance marathons to help break down your defences? What other retreat employs huggers, strokers, soothers and spooners to heal wounded hearts and teach traumatised bodies to trust again? What other retreat has a doctor on the team to patch you up after you get battered and bruised?
It could be creepy, it could be sleazy or pervy, but it’s not. It’s clear and innocent and deeply beautiful.
Do you need to go as crazy as I did? Not at all. While lots of people did scream, yell, sob and fight as they released their demons, others processed their ‘stuff’ in quieter, gentler ways. For some people the whole process is entirely liberating and joyous. To get the most out of the retreat you need to be willing to look deep inside yourself and be honest about your feelings.
You also have to trust the process and be prepared to move outside your comfort zone. It is highly confrontational, but within the context of a deeply safe space. I came back a different person.
Although I had plasters on my toes and bruises all over my ribs and legs, my body felt lighter and the chronic pain in my neck and shoulders had melted away. I also realised I was no longer clenching my jaw.
For the first few days I felt wide open, like a newborn, my heart vulnerable and young. I was high as a kite on love and acceptance and the real world felt harsh and hard. A week later I went to a party and danced freely. My inner critic started jeering: ‘You’re over the top, too flamboyant and way too fat’, but I danced on, arms flailing, hair flying and a smile stretched wide across my face.
What other retreat employs huggers, strokers, soothers and spooners to heal wounded hearts and teach traumatised bodies to trust again?
The real surprise, however, came from my husband. On my return, we talked more – and more honestly – than we have in the past 20 years.
In the weeks that followed, he realised that he, too, has been cut off from an ocean of hurt and pain. His issues are different from mine but, nonetheless, they’ve been holding him back from life.
To my total amazement, he has signed up to do the course himself. Will it resurrect our marriage? I doubt it, but I’m pretty sure it will deepen our friendship, allowing us to move on to the next stage of our lives without rancour.
‘The world needs more of this’ is POL’s catch-line, and I think it’s true.
Imagine a world full of people who have faced their demons, slung off their shadows and are trying their best to be open and honest, clear-minded and clear-hearted.
If this is a dodgy hippie love-cult, sign me up.
The Path of Love (pathretreats.com) is held in 14 countries and costs £1,490 per person for a one-week course. Accommodation and full board in Wales costs from £475 per person
Images: Jose Luis Merino