Recently I spent a week at “The Haven”, a retreat centre located on Gabriola Island. Gabriola is one of the Gulf islands nestled between the mainland and Vancouver Island. I love getting away to the islands for any reason; they are magical to me because anytime I visit one something shifts in my life. The Haven itself is a magical place. A place where people gather to improve themselves and the way they relate to others in this world.
I went to The Haven upon the recommendation of one of my doctors. This doctor isn’t just any doctor. I met her almost three years after I was diagnosed with cancer; she was the first professional that I saw who was interested in what I was doing for me, not just what I was doing to get rid of cancer. “Come Alive” is the name of the program she had recommended. Since I had not felt very lively in recent months, the prospect of feeling even a little more alive enticed me to give it a try.
On the ferry to Gabriola Island, I noticed a rainbow gleaning through the dreary sky. I considered it a good omen of things to come. As the shuttle from the ferry pulled onto the grounds of The Haven I took in the beautiful surroundings and knew I would enjoy my time there; I already felt that I would not want to leave at the end of the week. I settled into my room, met my roommate, and went for dinner. It was then that I knew leaving the haven would be difficult indeed; the food was nourishing and delicious, three meals like that every day, I’m staying forever!
After dinner, we entered a room and sat in a circle. There were fourteen participants, two facilitators, and two assistants. Our first activity was the usual round of introducing oneself and giving some background to the others as to why we were attending the program. After that, we did some playful activities to get everyone more comfortable with each other.
The next morning we started on our first full day. Our facilitators outlined The Haven communication model, a model based on taking self-responsibility and staying curious. We had time over the following days to practice this non-violent way of communicating inside and outside of the group environment. Since we were in an intimate setting with each other for many hours a day, the opportunities to get triggered by each other were abundant and gave us enough material to practice the communication model.
Using the model, it became more apparent to me that my judgements are usually complete nonsense. By checking in with others about my perceptions of what they said or did, I realized that I don’t really know anything about what is going on for other people. It certainly was interesting and humorous to me when I listened to what was actually happening with the other people and compare it to the stories I imagined about them.
I realize that everyone makes judgements; it seems to be our human nature. To be able to admit to those judgements and hear other people’s interpretations was liberating in a way. In the past, I have often beat myself up if I caught myself judging others too quickly, but now I know I am not alone in that. Judgments come, it’s just about not believing them and staying open to discover what is genuinely true for the other person.
Being in an environment where I was encouraged to check out my perceptions, helped me acknowledge the filters through which I view others and how those filters affect my personal relationships. There was a lady in the group who reminded me much of my older sister. At first, this made me want to distance myself from her. But I stayed open and discovered what a lovely person she is and I how nourished I felt when I was open to start knowing the real her. This experience also made me realize that my sister is also a lovely person, and I want to stay open with her to work out some of our misunderstandings.
On the second evening, we were split into two groups, so there would be more opportunity for us to have personal time for any difficulties we struggled with in our lives. These processes are different than talk therapy, instead of going deep into a story about an individual’s struggle, the process seemed to work more with moving the energy around the situation. Some people’s processes took the form of psychodrama, where they would act out the role of themselves and another person. Other’s needed more of a physical release, so the punching block was brought out; screaming or yelling was often encouraged. Then others, including my process were centered more around breath work and gentle body movements.
I did not come to the haven with anything in particular that I wanted to work through. Although cancer did turn my life upside down in many ways, I was in a very good place with it when I had arrived at the haven. At some point in the week, I thought maybe I could work on my pattern of running away in times when I feel misunderstood and hurt by the inability to get how I feel across to others. Although I did not have a process around it in my personal time, I did have an opportunity to work on this pattern.
During an afternoon group check in I had a misunderstanding with one of the facilitators. Both she and I are somewhat feisty and stubborn in nature and kept missing each other in what the other was trying to say. I was upset with the interaction and left with tears of frustration as the facilitators moved on to the white board to continue with the communication theory.
I managed to sit through the rest of the session, even if it took doodling in my notebook to keep me from getting too upset. I kept thinking to myself how much I wanted to pack my suitcase and catch a ferry off the island as soon as our next break came. All of the sudden I was back in my pattern of isolating myself after a misunderstanding.
When the break finally came, another participant, seeing how upset I was, checked it to see if I was ok and asked if I wanted to go for a walk. Instead of going off to my room alone, I spoke to him about what was going on for me and started to feel better. I felt a lot of compassion and was touched that someone did want to try to understand what I was feeling.
That evening we were in our smaller groups. I expressed to the facilitator that I was staying but did not wish to have a process because of what happened earlier that day in the larger group. I was still in partial isolation and unwilling to open myself up out of fear of being misunderstood again. However, as the night progressed and I witnessed two other people work through their processes, I started to open more myself. I felt connected with the others because they allowed themselves to be vulnerable. I wanted to show more of myself, even if there was a risk of the others not getting it. I told the facilitator that I would be open to taking some time for myself on the next evening.
It was our last full day of the program and even though we were all still there, many of us were already anticipating missing one another. Being in such an environment together fostered relationships to develop deeply. It’s certainly a unique situation for strangers to be so open and vulnerable with each other. I became sad because I knew this was a unique environment and I would be back in the “real” world the next day, navigating my way through life without the same loving support.
During our free time on that last day, I enjoyed the company of some of the people who with I felt connected. I did plan to take more alone time over the week as I tend to feel overwhelmed when I am around so many other people for long durations. But surprisingly, I wanted to soak up more of the group energy.
My process time came after dinner that last evening. I still had no idea what I would be working through. A couple of people had jokingly mentioned that it would be funny if I just “exploded”. Although meant as a joke, those comments evoked fear in me. I have had violent tendencies in the past, and I know there is anger inside of me. Although I am less angry and violent than I used to be, I couldn’t help but worry about “exploding” in some fit of rage that I unknowingly buried deep inside.
Well, I did explode. I exploded in laughter and joy. At the end of dinner another participant and I were getting into some unusual humor, and by the time we sat in the circle the built up energy made it’s way out. I didn’t know when that last time was that I rolled on the floor laughing in such a way. It certainly felt good and was very needed. I haven’t had much laughter my life these last few years; I experienced a lot of sadness, anger, frustration, and fear, but not a lot of joy.
Once the laughter calmed down, we shifted so the facilitator could assist me with breath work. Deep breathing helped to continue the release and shift the energy in my being. I was reminded that energy will move, whether it’s released in the form of punching, yelling, shaking or laughing. The work works in one way or another.
Those in the group who witnessed my process commented how radiant and glowing with life I was and how happy they were to hear me laugh. It felt good that a shift had taken place and was witnessed by those around me. Doing the work in the presence of others certainly helped make the experience more concrete for me.
The week was time well spent. I experienced a greater sense of connection with the people around me and felt nourished by my interactions with everyone throughout the week. Although I thought I felt pretty good when I arrived at The Haven, I truly did become more alive during my time there.