CAN YOU TRANSFORM YOUR EMOTIONAL LIFE IN A WEEK? JESSICA BRINTON BRAVED THE INTENSIVE PATH OF LOVE RETREAT TO FIND OUT
I heard about the Path of Love from someone in vaguely yogic circles. She told me it was a week-long personal-development “process” based on the principle that when you are surrounded by enough love to learn self-acceptance, you can finally become the person you always hoped you were and never be sad or lonely again. It’s supposed to be two years of therapy in a week. Frankly the deal-breaker is the prospect of thinking about myself for seven days straight, so I say yes.
And then, all of a sudden, here I am, transported to a high-ceilinged room in a gothic mansion in south Wales, with 30 apprehensive Scandinavians, Germans, Irish, French and Brits, and another 30-odd smiling staff gently relieving us of our smartphones.
“Seven days is a long time, but it’s nothing in comparison to a lifetime,” says Rafia Morgan, a man in his early sixties who co-invented the Path of Love and is one of the two course leaders. “If you really love the truth, take a few risks, take off your mask, open your heart and learn to trust again. You can change your life.”
To many, the idea of “taking off your mask” is a counterintuitive concept. For modern life, doesn’t every sensible person need a suit of armour to protect them? Yet here is a man echoing the Buddhist monk and teacher Trungpa Rinpoche, who said that the warrior isn’t brave because of his or her strength, but because of their tender, open heart and their willingness to strip off the armour and lay down the shield.
Morgan’s co-conspirator is a ravishing German woman with a voice like warm butter, called Turiya Hanover. They met in the California desert in the mid-1970s and tell us they jokingly planned to rob a bank, but instead became psychotherapists. They spent years as followers of the Indian guru and mystic Osho, fine-tuning their skills as spiritual facilitators, and it was in his ashram in Pune, India, that they developed the Path of Love.
“In life, things happen that make us shut down small parts of ourselves,” says Hanover when we are all assembled on the first morning. “As time passes and we shut down more bits, we can inadvertently shut down everything, until we feel barely anything at all. A closed heart is one for whom the world seems grey. When it is fully open, life is Technicolor.”
And so it begins. When we have been told the house rules — these include not speaking to each other outside sessions, so we are more focused on ourselves — we are given a list of keys, or promises that we have to make to ourselves and each other such as “I will honestly expose my feelings” and “I will never give up”. We are also asked to think about and sense our “longing”. This is not the longing for a Céline coat or a sexy partner, an eco-home in Somerset or more cash, although sometimes we could mistake it for those things by “projecting it outwards”. No, the longing they refer to is more of a secret yearning in the heart. They say it is to “feel and be more free, more genuinely connected to the world, to others, to have more inner fulfilment, more love in your life”. They say: “This longing, if felt and acknowledged, will take you where you need to go,” and I do know what they mean. Particularly when they intellectualise it (we Brits are apparently the best of the best at intellectualising our feelings).
The problem with some people, they say, naming no names, is that while they may be successful, clever and in control, when they live life on a schedule, they can forget to plan in time to feel stuff. “The Brits are often geniuses at sarcastic humour, and, though I adore the wit, I see a lot of people struggling through not feeling,” Morgan says. Other common substitutes for “feeling” include depression, insomnia, addiction and that sense of never being quite “here”.
A big piece of the time is spent in long group sessions with trained therapists, where we are given the chance to say the things we don’t normally say to anyone, and to tell the stories we sometimes don’t even tell ourselves. It’s called exposure and it’s an epic challenge: heartbreaking actually, and hilarious and touching. There is an aristocrat who was sent to boarding school at eight and never “grew into a sexual being”; a serial online dater who keeps being told that he’s lovely, but “let’s be friends”; a woman who regrets all the cosmetic surgery she has had, because “I was beautiful enough”; a big man who says, eyes filling with tears, that his girlfriend left him because he felt “numb”; and a Mexican man who misses his dad.
On “shadow and shame day”, we are invited to say the things we hide most carefully, because “it’s by bringing it into the light that you transform it. And if not this week, then when?” They have a point. If not now, then when? It’s slow at the start — deathly slow — but as the days pass, it’s as if doors are opening inside, and there are corridors, and they lead to places I’ve never been. And inside those places are ancient feelings and memories patiently waiting to be acknowledged.
One day, perhaps the first one, someone says “F***” very loudly and everyone jumps out of their skin, but after that, we all say it, because we want to and didn’t realise we could. We punch cushions and shout and cry. Later on, I see a woman who has insisted for days that she is “absolutely fine” let out a giant wail and be sick into a bucket.
We do something called a burn meditation, a combination of scream therapy and a magical disco rave, crushingly embarrassing and funny at the same time. I hardly ever dance this much, for so many hours, any more.
"THE CHARM OF THE BRECON BEACONS CONTRASTS SO SHARPLY WITH MY FEELINGS THAT I COULD BOMB THEM".
At night we write furious journals and there is a point, around midweek, when every corner seems occupied by a sad figure looking out of a window or down at their hands. Sometimes the charm of the Brecon Beacons contrasts so sharply with my feelings that I want to bomb them. Mostly, we all eat too much dinner.
But it keeps coming. And Morgan is always there, and so is Hanover, and their staff. There are evenings in front of the fire with duvets, poetry readings and just being. We’re alone enough to finally listen to our own stories, but we’re never lonely or scared.
Aristo lady complains about the silence rule (“I’m a natural rebel”) and keeps threatening to run away into the forest and smoke cigarettes. But the space and quiet are just what we need, because the more we tell the truth and find out that nothing terrible happens when we do, the more that sense of outsiderishness begins to dissolve.
The result of all the work is a big gift. I start to see myself with a 360-degree view: the successes, mistakes, the patterns, the bad bits co-existing with the other shiny and clear bits. And maybe we all get to see that everyone else is the same. These ordinary people saying that however rich, stylish or successful they become, sometimes — often — they feel like dorks, or fakes, or unsexy, or failures, or outsiders, or unlovable. We bother to reveal the lengths we will go to, the stories we tell ourselves and how lonely we will let ourselves become, in order to avoid anyone knowing that.
Then it’s over. For the last few hours, we’re allowed to break the silence. It turns out that the big man who was crying runs a property firm, and the woman who was sick is a lawyer. The girl who lost her memory is an architect. We all say that we’re nervous but excited about going “forward home” because what will it look like now?
Outside, the light on the mountains is turning that golden colour you get just before the sun begins to set. The Mexican boy is doing cartwheels on the grass. This doesn’t feel like lightweight, self-indulgent nonsense. It feels like a moment when we felt safe enough to admit who we really are without pretending anything and that who we are is OK.
My friend was wrong about something important, though. It’s not over. Once you start to cry more easily, shout more easily, feel more easily, you’re probably only just beginning. At least we’re all in it together. That alone makes life seem more important somehow and worth being fully alive for.