Tuesday 25 October 2016

The child within: finding a way to deal with the past

Participants in the Hoffman Process, a technique in personal development, say they are learning to put the past behind them.

Published 09/09/2015 | 02:30

Life-changing: Sammy Leslie, trustee of the Castle Leslie estate, underwent the Hoffman Process. Photo: Philip Fitzpatrick.
Life-changing: Sammy Leslie, trustee of the Castle Leslie estate, underwent the Hoffman Process. Photo: Philip Fitzpatrick.
Naomie Harris

Have you ever considered therapy? Incredibly popular in countries like the United States, it's a much quieter exercise among us Irish. While our American friends might wax lyrical about their "shrink", it's not something that's often publicly discussed here even though so many of us suffer with depression and its effects.

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With looking after our mental health getting a push in recent times from both the Government and the media, we know that it's good to talk to an objective professional if we're feeling blue. But the theory is often much easier to accept than the practice.

Making time for weekly sessions within our busy lives, and having to stop when the hour is up, no matter what you've been discussing, can be tough for many people. Switching from work mode or parent mode to a place where you can focus on yourself is often tricky on a Tuesday afternoon at 5pm, knowing full well that you've to be home making the dinner right after. It can be hard to let yourself go and fully feel the benefits - at least in my own experience.

For those reasons and more, many have been turning to a more immersive type of therapy known as the Hoffman Process. Founded 47 years ago in California, more than 600 Irish people have undergone the Process, as its known, and thousands more worldwide. Based in a country retreat in Donard, Co Wicklow and run a couple of times a year, you go and stay for seven days in order to immerse yourself, taking part in workshops and sessions with trained teachers. The purpose is to cut yourself off from your everyday life in order to really get in touch with what's been plaguing you within.

Just last month, British actress Naomie Harris (below), spoke out about her experience with the Process, tweeting "One week post the Hoffman Process and I'm still amazed at the difference in my life. A truly enlightening experience with some of the most authentically beautiful people I've ever met."

So far, so Hollywood, but the Skyfall and Southpaw actress also told The Edit magazine that she went through the Process at the age of 38, because she needed to "fully become an adult".

"Most of us operate as if we are adults, but we aren't emotionally mature at all," says Jeremy Kynaston of Hoffman Ireland.

"The Hoffman Process is all about learning re-parenting, because so many of us come from dysfunctional parents, and we get trapped in negative patterns that stem from that. To break those patterns you have to be in a space where you can recreate what you went through and deal with it.

"The fundamental theory which underpins the Process is that we learn our patterns of behaviour, positive and negative, from our parents," continues Kynaston.

The very foundations of psychotherapy, dating back to Freud, concentrates on childhood and how it affects us in the present day. Thus the aim of the Process is to find out how our past is influencing our present in a relatively short period of time, and then to work on dealing with it.

It might sound quite New Age, very American and also a bit frightening - the idea of closing yourself off from the world for a week and opening up your heart and soul is understandably daunting. But Jeremy says the format of the course has several benefits.

"Firstly, there's continuity. With weekly therapy sessions, people are often just opening up to, or in the middle of, recalling and exploring an experience, when the therapist or counsellor says 'time's up' and the person has to zip it all up again. This kind of 'three steps forward and two steps back' approach was one of the reasons why Bob Hoffman developed the week long Process.

"Many therapists have written that, as this enables participants to stay with whatever's happening emotionally, the Process can be as effective as two or more years of 1:1 therapy."

Of course, the Process doesn't come cheap at €2,900. However, this includes your week's accommodation, food and course materials. If what Jeremy says is correct, two years of weekly sessions with a psychotherapist or counsellor could cost over €6,000.

One Irish person who has gone through the Process is Sammy Leslie. "I first heard about it from a friend who had done it and kept telling me I would get so much out of it. It took me a few years to get the time and head space to do it, and now I often wonder if I had known about it in my 20s and done it then, what would I have done differently?"

Sammy had a "wonderful but confusing" childhood, living separately from her parents as her father was married when she was born. "I was born at a very difficult time for my parents. There was no emotional language in those days.

"They all tried to protect the children in their own ways, but kids pick up so much on tone of voice and body language, and can read the tension in a room in a heartbeat.

"I developed lots of issues around not feeling I had any value in this world and other patterns of behaviour that did not serve me well. If learned though, these behaviours can be unlearned."

Sammy feels the Process got right to the "dark roots" of her depression because of the immersive nature of the course, and also that it's not all about verbal communication.

"For years I had the feeling of deep pain in my heart, like a void in the middle of my chest when I got upset or down; now I can hardly remember it. I love the fact that the Process is so intense, as it allows you to get stuck in and sort stuff out. You have no contact or interference from the outside world, and you know you are in a very safe space."

Harry Woods underwent the Process back in 2006. "I had reached a point in my life when all the boxes were pretty much ticked with family, home and career, but I had a nagging sense that something was missing. More and more a feeling of sadness was consuming me, and I couldn't understand why I felt so empty."

For Harry, it was clear right away that the Process was going to be an "extraordinary" experience. "We participated in physical work like drawing and meditation, designed to release long-repressed emotions that are held in the body. I did a lot of thinking and writing and for the first time really reflected on the childhood that had shaped who I had become and how I interacted with the world.

"Taking the time out really helped me to hit the reset button. It allowed me to get some real perspective on my life, and over time to implement a new approach to deal with stress in a healthier way."

Sammy feels that being diagnosed with cancer post-Process meant she coped with it better. "When I got breast cancer, it was more 'this is a pile of crap, but it's not personal, so let's just get on with the treatment and deal with it'. Pre-Process, I wouldn't have coped so well."

It's often difficult to take zealous converts very seriously, so earnest are they in their beliefs; however speaking to both Sammy and Harry, it's clear that this has had a lasting positive effect on their lives. Jeremy tells me that the Process works well with depression and anger management because it encourages us to unleash the emotions we might have repressed - and it's fair to say that the Irish are masters in that respect.

"'How do you feel?' is a question we may habitually answer with 'grand' or 'fine'. The experience of the Process enables us to express our feelings, and to be able to describe them, so that we're able to communicate in a whole new way."

As well as that, the Process is said to help participants to change unwanted behaviours, heal shame issues and boost self-esteem.

So for those struggling with depression, is a week away from it all working on yourself more helpful than a holiday, or months of one to one therapy? It perhaps depends on the person.

For some, the idea of a residential course with no external interaction might be terrifying, while for others, the thoughts of dealing with repressed emotions from childhood too daunting to consider. However, it's perhaps good to know that if open to it, there are alternatives to more traditional therapies - and that this kind of Californian method is indeed available on these here shores.

There's a free information evening at Brooks Hotel in Dublin tonight, at 7.30pm. See hoffmanireland.com for details

Irish Independent

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