The Hoffman Process: Seven days to change a lifetime
For much of modernity, a code of omertà stopped us talking about mental health. We were men raised to suffer in silence. Thankfully, times are changing, and in this candid account, GQ‘s Editor opens up to the groundbreaking Hoffman Process and reveals the life-altering release and healing that comes from speaking out
“They fuck you up, your mum and dad” – Philip Larkin
For anyone who was a devotee of the show, it is difficult to forget the intensity of the last scene in the final episode of Mad Men. Having just disengaged from a group therapy session in which a man called Leonard told him about his dream of being left unwanted in a fridge, Don Draper is revealed meditating on top of California’s Big Sur cliffs. As a cross-legged teacher carefully unfurls his mantra (“The new day brings new hope. The lives we’ve led. The lives we’ve yet to lead. A new day. New ideas. A new you…”) a slight grin begins to curl its way over Draper’s face. And as he does so, we cut to the opening frames of the famous 1971 Coca-Cola ad, “I’d Like To Buy The World A Coke” (which was turned into a massively successful hit, “I’d Like To Teach The World to Sing”, by The New Seekers).
Was Draper smiling because he had reached a new level of consciousness, having started to finally make peace with himself? Or was he happy because he’d just come up with the idea for the Coke ad? While Mad Men‘s showrunner Matthew Weiner is guarded about the meaning of the finale (“The ambiguous relationship we have with advertising is part of why I did the show – why not end the show with the greatest commercial ever made?”), Jon Hamm, who played Draper, has been in two minds about the flex of the scene. “We see him in an incredibly vulnerable place, surrounded by strangers, and he reaches out to the only person he can at that moment and it’s this stranger,” he says. “My take is that the next day he wakes up in this beautiful place and has this serene moment of understanding and realises who he is. And who he is, is an advertising man. And so this thing comes to him. There’s a way to see it in a completely cynical way and say, ‘Wow, that’s awful.’ But I think that for Don it represents some kind of understanding and comfort in this incredibly unquiet, uncomfortable life that he has led.”
“They fuck you up, your mum and dad” – Philip LarkinPA Photos
Either way, the scene highlights the fact that by the early Seventies, wellness – or at least what wellness was called before it became something of a genuine leisure pursuit – had been turned into an industry as well as a lifestyle. It could be self-awareness, self-discovery, homespun spiritualism, therapy, clinical psychology, counterculture, Western esotericism, attempting to find peace in a frantic world or simply any general exploration of mind and body – by 1971 the Age Of Aquarius had arrived (albeit a little early). If the Sixties allowed anyone in the West to “turn on, tune in and drop out” – opening the sluice gates to such an extent that literally all forms of expression and creativity, however marginalised, were validated by the media – by the beginning of the Seventies some of the more transactional manifestations began to creep into society proper. This was what Tom Wolfe famously labelled the “Me” decade, bringing a focus on and analysis of self, and an increasing exploration of our psychic wiring. “In one form or another they arrive at an axiom first propounded by the Gnostic Christians some 1,800 years ago,” he wrote. “Namely, that at the apex of every human soul there exists a spark of the light of God.”
Wolfe wasn’t being empathetic, but then that was never his beat. Nevertheless, empathy is a defining characteristic of the new ways in which personal development has become so popular in the last few years. Today, we appear to be as interested in the wellbeing of others almost as much as the wellbeing of ourselves and we’re now living in a culture where “internal welfare” is not something to be embarrassed about or shy away from. We are far more prepared to discuss our problems with friends and empowered enough to suggest help where we see it might be needed. And there are more things to suggest than there were in the early Seventies – among them, the Hoffman Process.
For those who have never heard of it, the Hoffman Process is a personal development course with a difference, one that involves a variety of therapeutic techniques, including Eastern mysticism, deep meditation, a form of group therapy and a lot of physically expressive work. The Process has a unique recipe, drawing ingredients from various well-worn modalities, including gestalt therapy, neurolinguistic programming, cognitive behavioural therapy, bioenergetics and some fairly extreme psychodynamic work. Examples include journalling, meditation and guided visualisation. It has become, for many, a life-changing experience that can clinically remove negative habits.
The salient belief of the Process is the emotional discovery of the truth about our unique history. This is what has been called the drama of being a child – that behavioural patterns are attributed to early childhood
Many who finish the Process become evangelical and it has been compared to a form of rehab; I have friends who’ve been in places such as The Priory in London and The Meadows and Cottonwood Tucson in Arizona who all say they did similar techniques. The practitioners tear you down then build you back up again, teaching you tools and techniques to help change old behavioural patterns that may be preventing you from feeling fully alive and freeing you to make conscious choices that will improve your relationships with the people around you. It is intensive and, like I say, often transformational.
As the psychologist Oliver James says of the Process, “It is the most systematic method I know for properly exploring the role of childhood as well as offering a motorway back from the past. While many of the techniques it employs are not in themselves original, the combination of them is and so is the fact it is done as an eight-day residential course.”
Founded in 1967 by Bob Hoffman, a former tailor from Oakland, California, with no formal training in psychology, psychiatry or psychotherapy, the Process is designed to help the unmoored identify negative behaviours, moods and ways of thinking that developed unconsciously and were conditioned in childhood. Its aims? “To help you become conscious of and disconnected from negative patterns of thought and behaviours on an emotional, intellectual, and physical level in order to make significant positive changes in your life. You will learn to remove habitual ways of thinking and behaving, align with your authentic self, and respond to situations in your life from a place of conscious choice.”
The salient belief of the Process is the importance of childhood or, more precisely, the emotional discovery of the truth about the unique history of our childhood. This is what the psychotherapist Alice Miller calls the drama of being a child. “In order to become whole we must try to discover our own personal truth,” she says, “a truth that may cause pain before giving us a new sphere of freedom.” This is now a popular psychological belief, fast-tracked by John Bowlby’s attachment theory, which believes that mental health and behavioural patterns are largely attributed to early childhood.
Naomie HarrisRex / Shutterstock
Unlike other similar personal development courses, it’s almost impossible to find outright criticism of the Hoffman Process. Go online and you’ll find umpteen validations and almost no sniping.
It also has its fair share of celebrity endorsements. Earlier this year, British actress Naomie Harris spoke out about her experience, saying, “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.” She isn’t alone. “I think my generation can tend towards introversion,” says Hoffman graduate and singer Stella Talpo. “Social media encourages such a lot of comparison and spin. When we look out at our screens we can forget that there’s an ‘in.’ As a result many of us have disconnected from any sense of ourselves having a spiritual aspect, which can lead to isolation. The Process allowed me to find spirituality in a new way and now I never feel alone. I don’t think anything could have quite done it for me like Hoffman did.” Even Goldie is a convert. “In the Nineties, Goldie became this mad character and I sometimes went a little too far,” he says, referring to himself in the third person. “I’d gone to rehab, I was getting beaten up for my sins three days a week, and it didn’t f***ing work. It wasn’t until I did the Hoffman Process that the whole process of reinventing myself began.”
Taken out of context, these validations can seem meaningless – like a good review of an obviously bad film – but having just done the Hoffman Process, I know exactly what they’re talking about, as I also experienced a personal transformation, an injection of clarity and what I started to realise was something approximating genuine joy. Who knew, huh?
In this world, good health is synonymous with beauty and self-fulfilment, especially good health in the head
The ideals of the Sixties counterculture were meant to emphasise a life free from tyranny, whereas the rapidly developing countercultural lifestyle of the Seventies was nothing if not tyrannical: seriously, how could you be expected to fit a restorative yoga class into your schedule if you had already diarised a gym session, closed-eyes therapeutic workout and three hours of applied nutrition?
The wellness industry became big enough to boast many mansions, accommodating shamans as well as acupuncturists, healers as well as masseurs. Soon this would morph into a world where the husbandry of mind and body was simply an extension of the luxury goods industry, and in the early Nineties it wasn’t possible to visit a country house hotel, a destination hotel or one of the supposedly trendier urban boutique hotels without being encouraged to sample their new beauty and relaxation rooms. In the coffee and spa culture of the Nineties and noughties, we moved from dark rooms smelling of cinnamon into white rooms smelling of lemon grass. We got used to spending upwards of £60 to have some dippy, wan-faced girl in a beige muslin surgical smock a) ask if you liked the music (default panpipes or Farrow & Ball jazz), b) ask if you’d ever had a massage before and c) proceed to knead your back as though your flesh might disintegrate if anyone were to actually touch it.
I suppose it was only natural that our obsession with the way we looked would escalate until we started to peer inquisitively beneath the skin. What came next, the 21st-century iteration of wellness, was a simple enough conceit: just because you aren’t sick, and just because you don’t have any symptoms, and just because you’ve had a checkup and got a clean bill of health, that doesn’t mean you’re well. Wellness was literally the opposite of illness – the pursuit of imperfections. While it was once associated with the utopian New Age subcultures of places like Marin County and Santa Fe, the term was actually popularised in the late Fifties by Dr Halbert L Dunn, the so-called father of the movement. Writing in the Canadian Journal Of Public Health in 1959, Dr Dunn defined “high-level wellness”, the organising principle behind his work, as “a condition of change in which the individual moves forward, climbing toward a higher potential of functioning.”
Mental health problems represent the largest single cause of disability in the UK, with one in four adults experiencing at least one diagnosable problem in any given year
If we consider that the march of technology ultimately dehumanises us, as it was once thought that sedentary white-collar work was unhealthy, then it is hardly surprising we now have a global wellness culture that, in 2015, was worth £2.5 trillion. In this world, good health becomes synonymous with beauty and self-fulfilment, especially good health in the head.
According to the NHS, mental health problems represent the largest single cause of disability in the UK, with one in four adults experiencing at least one diagnosable problem in any given year. According to campaign group Time To Change, the number of people acknowledging that they know someone close to them who has had a mental illness increased from 58 per cent in 2009 to 65 per cent in 2014. According to the British Association For Counselling And Psychotherapy (BACP) the number of people consulting councillors or therapists is steadily increasing year on year (in 2007, there were 28,111 members, while today there are 44,202).
Tragically, suicide is still the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK and 76 per cent of UK suicides are male. In February 2014 a survey completed by a focus group of 250 BACP members revealed that, compared to five years previously, 62 per cent had a higher percentage of male clients. In addition, 72 per cent agreed with the statement that “men are more likely to see a counsellor or psychotherapist now than they were five years ago.” BACP governor Dr Andrew Reeves says, “While, traditionally, things got worse and worse until the GP eventually prescribed medication, I think this growing awareness has made people much more likely to recognise and acknowledge their own mental health problems and be more proactive in seeking support at an earlier stage.” (Most of the statistics above are dated from 2014 because reports in this field are not usually carried out annually; for example, the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey’s Mental Health And Wellbeing report is only carried out every seven years.)
It’s stigma that stops people realising just how prevalent it is. It’s in every single workplace, every family, every sports group, it’s there in every classroom. It’s everywhere
Data is being driven from elsewhere, though. There are thousands of new apps dedicated to some aspect of mental health; Headspace is the UK’s second highest-grossing health and fitness app – above tools for workouts and eating plans. Obviously, experts are divided in their opinion about the role of social media in mental health awareness, some saying it actually amplifies health issues and some convinced it simply reflects the state of society. Others argue that social media and the constant striving for perfection it induces causes anxiety and feelings of inadequacy.
Elsewhere, wellness tourism – at the very least cleansing body and soul in an Ibizan retreat – is developing fast. A cartoon in the New Yorker a few months ago highlights the way in which this new world has become so pervasive. In a gigantic chemist’s, a sign hangs above a dozen shelves heaving with potions, pills and creams: “Holistic Naturopathic Wellness,” it says. A young couple are examining a bottle on the top shelf and the one holding the basket is saying, “Because when it actually works they just call it medicine.” There was another in the magazine a few weeks later. A bearded chap in a rollneck jumper is down in his basement, opening old boxes. One, marked “Childhood memories” is overflowing with toys and basketballs. Another, “Repressed memories,” remains tightly sealed.
Deepak Chopra and Oprah WinfreyGetty Images
Mindfulness – not as a catch-all term for internal exploration, but rather a fancy word for meditation – is now everywhere. Two years ago, Deepak Chopra described the usefulness of meditation for those on Wall Street. Speaking about a friend who runs a hedge fund, he said, “His entire staff meditates. I know many others now on Wall Street that we teach, actually. It makes them much more productive, because they’re centred. They’re not distracted.” Chopra was appearing on TV to puff a free 21-day online meditation course he was promoting with Oprah Winfrey. Its theme was “Manifesting True Success.” These days, meditation is considered no different from getting up an hour earlier every day to use the gym – it’s just something you do. But then so is everything else, as every form of psychiatric disorder is now taken far more seriously than it was a decade ago, especially as many of those who have been brave enough to admit to some form of anxiety and depression are showrunners in the corporate world.
“Historically, the alpha-male archetype has had no time for conversations about emotions,” says Simon Gunning, CEO of Calm (Campaign Against Living Miserably). “But men like Stormzy, Rio Ferdinand and Professor Green are casting this idea aside – strong, famous men explaining how opening up has changed their lives. Men are talking more. Calm has taken more than 200,000 helpline calls and prevented more than 1,000 suicides to date. But while 12 men a day die by suicide, there is much work to do. We must equip ourselves, our mates, our workplaces, schools and health services to support those in need. We start by building a generation who recognise how dangerous the idea of a strong, silent man can be.”
Even if we are not actually seeking counselling, we understand that by exploring our inner worlds we are investing in ourselves in a more fruitful way than if we simply joined a gym or bought a whizz-bang mountain bike
Then, of course, there are relatively new charities, such as One For The Boys, which was started by Sofia Davis and Samuel L Jackson. Inspired to do something to help her friend Simon heal from losing his brother Ali to cancer, Davis started researching male cancers. She was surprised to see most cancer campaigning focused on women and very few supported and educated men. The lack of awareness in men of cancer symptoms reinforced the need for a change and so One For The Boys was born. By bringing some blue to what seemed to be a very pink world, she succeeded in getting men to pay more attention to their bodies when something might be wrong. Her main objective was simple: to get men talking about cancer by removing the myths around it and changing their attitudes towards their health. In this new world, attitudes are as important as ailments.
Some have wrongly ascribed this newfound obsession with ourselves to narcissism, however it is anything but. Narcissists are obsessed with themselves above all else, people for whom everything is supplementary to their existence; it isn’t just about the way they look, it is the very fact of their existence that is important. What we are seeing today, however, is a widespread realisation that we are quite the opposite, that we are far from perfect and that, while we are encouraged to adopt a damn-the-torpedoes type of self-belief, it is perfectly OK to seek help. Even if we are not actually seeking counselling, we understand that by exploring our inner worlds we are investing in ourselves in a more fruitful way than if we simply joined a gym or bought a whizz-bang mountain bike.
Opening ourselves up to vulnerability has been key to the fundamental changes in people’s attitudes. Is there anyone who hasn’t watched Brené Brown’s TED Talk on the subject? Since June 2010 her talk, “The Power Of Vulnerability”, has been seen by almost 30 million people; she has more than half a million followers on Instagram and she isn’t even a Kardashian. “In our culture, we associate vulnerability with emotions we want to avoid, such as fear, shame and uncertainty,” she says. “Yet we too often lose sight of the fact that vulnerability is also the birthplace of joy, belonging, creativity, authenticity and love.”
Apparently my behaviour was becoming so impossible that the family were walking on eggshells – and when I finally relented, I vowed to keep it a secret
So why have mindfulness, therapy and all these other New Age teachings become popular recently? Is it a fad? Is it just another leisure pursuit, the “Me” decade all over again, part of the so-called transformation economy? There are 5,675 more practitioner psychologists registered with HCPC (Health And Care Professions Council) than in 2000; in 2000 there were 16,869 and currently there are 22,544. Louise Chunn runs Welldoing, the independent psychotherapist and counsellor directory, and has written extensively about mental health and the way in which it has become less stigmatised over the years. “It’s a time of great change, a revolution in our ways of communicating,” she says. “Everything can be done ultra-fast, but often without a human element and people are finding they miss it. It’s also leaving time for reflection and into that space come existential concerns. What do I stand for? Do I really understand myself? Why am I never happy with anything I have achieved? So many therapists are seeing people with anxiety. It’s certainly the highest search term on welldoing.org, although depression is big too.”
Sue Baker is the director of Time To Change, the country’s most ambitious campaign to end the stigma and discrimination faced by people who experience mental health problems. It’s funded by grants from Comic Relief (its biggest ever in the UK, at about £1 million a year for the last ten years), by the Big Lottery Fund and by the Department Of Health.
“I’ve been working in mental health for about 23 years,” says Baker, “and when I first started at Mind there was an assumption of dangerousness around mental health, and the cycle of violence and fear and shame was completely reinforced. So over the years we’ve done a lot of work to support people in telling their stories and we work with the media so that the coverage is more fair and balanced and doesn’t use pejorative terms.
Mental health is part of being human. Why should you judge somebody just because it’s mental health not physical health?
“Public attitudes have been measured annually and nationally since 1992,” Baker continues, “using the same 26 attitude statements, and there’s been a 9.6 per cent improvement in public attitudes of adults across England to mental health since 2008, which equates to more than four million people changing their attitudes on mental health. What we’ve seen over the last few years is even more significant change in ‘intended behaviour’. So that’s when we ask questions such as, ‘Would you live next door to someone with mental health problems? Would you continue a relationship with someone with mental health problems?’ and so on.
“Mental health is just a health issue that is part of being human and why should you judge somebody just because it’s mental health not physical health? It’s stigma that stops people realising just how prevalent it is. It’s in every single workplace, every family, every sports group. It’s there in every classroom. It’s everywhere.” I had no intention of ever writing about the Hoffman Process. My wife had been encouraging me to try it for years – apparently my behaviour was becoming so impossible (I was emotionally detached, never “present” and unable to empathise or emote) that the family were walking on eggshells – and when I finally relented, I vowed to keep it a secret.
For most of my life, all I could remember about the violence came in abstract, fuzzy images and I think I managed to pretty much blank most of it out
Like many people I know, I had been seeing a therapist on and off for years, but had never seen the need to shout about it or indeed discuss it with anyone. The older you get, though, the past starts to catch up with you. Mine had probably never left me. I spent most of my childhood being hit by my father – when he wasn’t hitting my mother, that is. I was beaten relentlessly and repeatedly (daily, in fact), hit so hard that for years it was difficult for me to speak without stammering, finding it impossible to repeat my own name. For most of my life, all I could remember about the violence came in abstract, fuzzy images and I think I managed to pretty much blank most of it out. When I became a teenager I began treating it almost as badge of honour, like having a criminal for a father, advertising what a tough time I’d had, an excuse for delinquent behaviour and appalling results at school. And then I just buried it, for years, just put it into another box, one I rarely ever looked at.
When I started going to therapy I was told immediately that any problems I might be having in the real world were the result of my maltreatment when I was younger. At first I stupidly refused to believe it, minimising what had happened to me as a child and feeling guilty for even considering it. But then, of course, guilt is one of the many manifestations of an abused childhood, along with shame, fear and sociopathy. Oh, and denial, which is one of the reasons I initially had no intention of going anywhere near Hoffman.
When I first spoke to Serena Gordon, the former actress and Bond girl (she starred opposite Pierce Brosnan in 1995’s GoldenEye) who bought the UK licence from Bob Hoffman in 1995, I enquired as to whether or not anyone ever wrote about their experiences and then immediately dismissed any idea that I might want to write about my own. Not only would it compromise me, it could compromise others on the course. I felt almost as though Hoffman was a bit like Fight Club (the first rule of the Hoffman Process is you do not talk about the Hoffman Process), because whenever I discovered that one of my friends had done it, and so far they number seven – that I know of – all I got was a knowing look and a big smile. Not one of them had anything but complete praise for the course, even if they wouldn’t tell me anything about it.
Oliver JamesGetty Images
And that’s the thing about the Process: while it is possible, by piecing together various published articles, to get a pretty good idea of what takes place when you go on it, it is advised that you know as little about it as possible if you’re thinking of doing it yourself. I was even told this to my face. At the end of last year I went along to an induction evening at Regent’s University, in Regent’s Park in London, to see what all the fuss was about. I sat at the back of the room looking for all the world like a broadly drawn secret agent from the Fifties, with my collar turned up and my hat pulled down, adamant that no one should notice me. And as I listened to half a dozen Hoffman graduates get up and discuss the course, telling us all how good it had been for them – and they were nothing if not passionate in their espousal – we heard time and time again that it’s best if you don’t know too much about it before you go, principally in case it scares you off.
How right they were. Six months later, I turned up at a small country house hotel on the south coast along with 23 other nervous inductees. To say that we were all wary is a massive understatement and while a few kind souls went out of their way to be nice to each other, most of us were grunting and staring at our shoes (something I have become quite adept at over the years). We were then encouraged to walk into a room and take our seats in a circle, where we could all scrutinise each other. And this is largely where we stayed – of course, we were allowed to eat, sleep and use the bathroom, and occasionally to socialise, but broadly speaking this was where we were for a week, going on a metaphorical journey that I imagine none of us on the course will ever forget. And why would we want to? After all, the Hoffman Process is one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that will leave you changed forever. I should know, because I myself have changed. Even though I can feel what I learned beginning to slip away – every day it falls away, little by little – one of the many things the course teaches is that it’s crucial to actually listen to yourself on a regular basis, so even if all my good intentions turn to dust I will never forget the experience itself. This is not a personality transplant and you don’t start walking around with a sense of entitled transcendence, but what you get is a whole bunch of context.
It is nothing less than traumatic at times, but you need to experience the trauma in order to cope with the euphoria that comes later
I had previously been wary of personal development courses. I figured they were either designed for people who couldn’t make it on their own or those who had made it, were starting the slow descent to oblivion and now wanted a way to cope with it. But then I’m rarely surprised by how shallow I can be sometimes. My narrative was a simple one. I loudly boasted that I was only on the course under duress, that my wife had made me go and that I really didn’t want to be there. I probably appeared terribly arrogant. Secretly, I was also experiencing a pathetic attack of fomo (seriously, at my age?), as a buddy was throwing a four-day party for a mutual friend in the wilds of Oxfordshire while I was clomping around in a glorified B&B near Brighton. But I quickly realised how ridiculous I was being.
Technically, the Process doesn’t involve group therapy, but because you need to be “seen” while experiencing many of the emotions conjured up here, you are hiding (or not) in plain sight. It is nothing less than traumatic at times, but you need to experience the trauma in order to cope with the euphoria that comes later.
As I say, if you knew what the course involves you probably wouldn’t want to have anything to do with it, but rarely have I found a week so fulfilling as the one I spent at Hoffman. It is difficult to describe the intensity of some of the group work, and out of courtesy to the other people on the course I’m not going to tell. Suffice it to say that you are encouraged to go back into your childhood – deeply into your childhood – in a way that I didn’t think was possible. Yes, there is a fair amount of expressive work, but there are also techniques for delving into your memories so precisely that the trauma of childhood is scooped out of you – where it is examined, recontextualised and eventually sent on its way. Even though it is a process driven by emotion, intellectually it is fascinating.
You realise that you are in fact being played, with the tsunami of emotions you’re experiencing all carefully orchestrated by the three teachers in front of you
As “patients” (for want of a better word) you are carefully guided through the proceedings, and as you’re working from 7.30 in the morning to 8.30 at night, and as it is an extremely busy programme, with various rituals occurring throughout the week, there is not much time for going off-piste. (The only activity I found time for was watching the dawn break over the White Cliffs of Dover.) After a few days, you realise that you are in fact being played, with the tsunami of emotions you’re experiencing all carefully orchestrated by the three teachers in front of you. But although each emotion has been carefully, methodically teased out of you, everything you experience is real. That’s why it is called a process. Not every emotion is proscribed, however, and every now and then something from your past – a memory, a realisation – will hit you in the face and pull you up short. Many times I would be in the middle of a verbal or written declaration (you really do have to write a lot on the course) and I would hear myself say or write something for the very first time. So while the fundamental purpose of the Hoffman Process is to come to terms with yourself while exploring your past, you learn so much about yourself that not for one minute does it appear rote.
Tom Wolfe PA Photos
During a session where I was forced to recall some of the more unpleasant memories of my early days, I not only remembered that I would be locked under the stairs after being punched, but also that because my brother didn’t suffer any beatings himself (or at least not many) and because he is five years younger than me, a lot of the abuse I suffered had to have been at a terribly early age. I knew that it continued after he was born, but for some reason it appeared to be more infrequent. Obviously, I found both pieces of information deeply troubling. I wasn’t on the course to wallow in self-pity, but it certainly gave me pause for thought when the teachers said had the abuse taken place today, my father would have been in jail. As it is, he nearly was, having almost killed a boy when he was at school. The more I delved into his own past and the more I looked for explanations – one of the quirks of the course is the way in which you are encouraged to do your own detective work – the more I realised it was his own childhood (he too was beaten) and his own frustrations (sexual and professional) that led to much of his behaviour. There was also the not inconsiderable fact that back in the Sixties, walloping your children was simply thought of as a way of keeping them in line.
You are encouraged to do a substantial amount of writing on the course, some of which you burn and some you keep. Even the stuff I was told to burn, I copied, as I wanted to remember every moment, every rapidly written syllable. I also found the expressive writing incredibly liberating. Having spent 30 years trying to hone my craft, writing as a form of expression was a revelation. You write and write and write and write. For the purposes of this piece I reread all of the essays and in one of the letters to my father (who is dead: the letters are never sent, so it doesn’t matter either way) I found the following: “…but f*** I found you terrifying. Really, really f***ing terrifying…”
What was it like? Well, fundamentally transformative.
Perhaps predictably, you get to know everyone else on the Process extremely well, forging friendships that are often considered strong enough to last for life (most of my friends who have done the course are still in contact with people they met there). Although it’s only been a few months since my experience with it, we are still in daily contact, having created a WhatsApp group that never seems to sleep.
When you’ve been laying prostate on the floor, talking about things you’ve never talked about with anyone, I suppose it’s hardly surprising that bonds develop. You usually have to share a room, accept a rota for the shower and forgo all forms of electronic communication. No phones, no emails, no texts, no nothing. You are not allowed newspapers, magazines or books and you are discouraged from visiting the local town. Essentially, you are required to push the world away and focus entirely on yourself. It took me a few days to acclimatise and get used to this new regime, but it slowly dawned on me that having spent 35 years working for other people, and at no point during that time spending any real time on myself, I would be crazy not to accede completely. We were also encouraged to step out of our comfort zones, to confront people, to look them squarely in the eye, openly discuss our feelings… and share. You have to stand up in front of everyone else and admit your fears and insecurities in the hope that by doing so they will eventually fall away. As one graduate says, the Hoffman Process scrapes you to the bone and publicly exposes you. “Something in me fundamentally changed,” said another graduate, who sat next to me throughout my course. “There was a shift that enabled me to move away from my past and move forward in my life with self-belief, confidence and more hope than I could ever have believed possible.”
Looking back over the notes I made during the week, I came across the following: ‘trauma’, ‘abuse’, ‘destructive patterns’, ‘lack of guidance’, ‘perpetual anxiety’, ‘disidentifying’, ‘like being in a disaster movie or an Agatha Christie drama’
Another was equally forthcoming: “Many years ago, I attended a lecture by a prominent medical consultant on the subject of pain management. He began by referencing a definition of pain, which he said was taken from an early medical dictionary: a localised area of sadness. I have no recollection of the remaining three hours of his lecture, as I spent the time thinking about the implications of that definition, which had been so readily cast out with the bath water.
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“After my week on the Hoffman, listening to a group of strangers telling massively different forms of horror stories, the feelings they expressed appeared familiar and the sharing gave birth to a profound sense of mutual bonding. The experience has given me new insight into the nature, potential and methods of my self-healing. While the following may be an absurd quantification of a complex multidimensional experience, it is graphically illustrative of my subjective experience: my overriding impression is that my localised area of sadness has shrunk from the dimensions of an isolated country, down to the shape and size of a small town. That profoundly significant shift in perspective is thanks to the contribution and attention of the other souls who dedicated a week to the Hoffman.”
You are asked to do things that are decidedly odd, things that make you feel particularly self-conscious, but although not every form of expressive work clicked with me (there are only so many pillows you can bash with a plastic baseball bat), I realised the only person who was going to miss out if I didn’t join in was myself. So I jumped in, head first, without a helmet.
It was an emotional roller-coaster in VR, AR and 3-D… squared
What was it like? Well, fundamentally transformative enough for me to want to write about it. Looking back over the notes I made during the week, I came across the following: “trauma”; “abuse”; “destructive patterns”; “lack of guidance”; “perpetual anxiety”; “disidentifying”; “like being in a disaster movie or an Agatha Christie drama”; “wish I had done this years ago”; “transference”; “new behavioural expression”; “negative road map”. What was it like? Like an emotional roller-coaster in VR, AR and 3-D… squared.
For me, it was a week of magical thinking. Of course, it was not without lighter moments and there was one session when, having been asked to imagine a space full of my spiritual self, my emotional self, my intellectual self and my physical self, along with my emotional child, I started to lose track of who was actually in the room. I felt like I needed one of those lists of characters you find in lengthy historical novels. As a natural cynic, I was also overwhelmed by some of the techniques, a process of attrition that was often emotionally bruising. But there was euphoria too, and the penultimate day of the course was one of the happiest I’ve ever had, experiencing the kind of childlike glee I didn’t know I was still capable of. If I had been asked to lead a round of “I’d Like To Teach The World to Sing”, I would have done it, gladly, without a care.
On the final day, I came back to London something of a different person. As I drove up the M23, with a car full of fellow graduates, the world seemed different too, slightly lighter, though slightly fractured and not without its challenges. A crowded motorway was perhaps not the best way to re-enter civilisation (in fact, it is recommended that you actually squirrel yourself away for a couple of days by yourself in a hotel, advice I stupidly ignored), but it helped contextualise the extraordinary journey I’d been on. This wasn’t an X Factor journey, though. This was real, a genuine sensation. That sensation is still with me; the pulse is weaker now, but it’s definitely there, reminding me forever that the Hoffman Process is real too, a psychic tattoo that you can’t easily remove.
I loved my week by the sea. And you know what? I want to go back.
For more information, please visit The Hoffman Institute. hoffmaninstitute.co.uk