The Hoffman Process is an eight-day residential course of personal discovery and development. It is hard work, extreme and all consuming. But, as Jayne Allen discovers, it might also change your life
Anger and forgiveness
Recently I have been allowing myself to feel anger which I used to have a habit of suppressing. Gradually I’ve been starting to feel and express my anger about, for example, my domestic situation in relation to my ex-partner who takes very little responsibility for our children. The other day something my son said on the way to school about this intensified my sense of grievance even more. I struggled through the morning at work and by lunchtime was feeling almost uncontrollable rage surging through my body. I left the office feeling as if I was about to explode. I went home and found a wooden rounders bat, grabbed a cushion and shut myself in the bathroom so I wouldn’t alarm the neighbours or the cats. Then I proceeded to violently thrash the cushion for all I was worth. I let rip, howling and yelling and bashing until my hands were sore. I was bashing at the unfairness of it all but also at my own muteness, my lack of assertiveness, my awful pattern of always wanting to be in control, taking responsibility and never asking for help. All this probably lasted about 10 minutes. When I stopped I was shaking but felt massive relief.
Four months ago I did the Hoffman Process. I don’t know what made me sign up for it. I didn’t feel that I was at a particular crisis point in my life. I’ve benefited from my fair share of therapy, and feel, in a middle-aged sort of way, rather resigned to my problems. But problems I do have: I struggle with intimacy and tend to isolate myself, I have a poor relationship with my mother and sister, a tendency to be extremely cynical... I could go on.
I knew very little about the Hoffman Process. What I did know was that it is an expensive eight-day residential personal development course which was somehow shrouded in secrecy. I had read an article about it five years ago but during the past 12 months it seemed to be popping up everywhere. Therapists were talking about it. Journalists and celebrities were writing about it. Tatler described it as ‘all the rage’. Only a few weeks ago in The Times, Oliver James recommended it as one of the few effective ways he knew of beating depression. And I have yet to hear anyone rubbish it.
The more I found out about it the more I was attracted to the idea. If the pre-process work was anything to go by, no stone was going to be left unturned. I received a 32-page questionnaire asking about my medical, personal and family history. They wanted to know everything about me, including what I hoped to gain from the course. For me that was simple. I wanted to know why, in my mid-40s, I seem to have completely given up on love. The section I found most challenging involved identifying my parents’ negative traits from a list of literally hundreds. There were pages and pages of headings such as Abandoning, Perfectionist, Unreliable, which broke down into lists of more detailed traits. So under Anxiety-driven there were 10 traits ranging from ‘impatient’ to ‘insomniac’, and under Overpleasing 10 more ranging from ‘over-attentive’ to ‘compliant’. Although I have given quite a bit of thought over the years to some of my parents’ characteristics, I had never before focussed on them in this way. Having ticked all my mother’s and father’s failings, I had to identify which of these traits I had inherited from my parents, or indeed which I had rebelled against, eg I had rebelled against my father’s cautiousness with money by becoming ridiculously extravagant.
What was striking for me about this rather painful exercise was the way it reframed my view of my parents; I have always tended to side with my father, making excuses for his behaviour and shortcomings, and I have held my mother principally to blame for my troubles. What this questionnaire highlighted, however, was that a greater proportion of my own negative traits seemed to be connected to my father. The exercise also gave me an opportunity to reflect on which negative traits my own children might be in the process of receiving from me… One other question – How do you feel about the future? – stopped me in my tracks. I realised that my truthful answer to this question, about my own life and also as regards the human race in general, was ‘pretty despairing’.
As the day of departure approached last November I began to panic. Whilst the prospect of escaping from my regular routine excited me on the one hand, it was also alarming. I was going to be cut off from the outside world, and in particular from my children, for eight whole days and was even expected to relinquish my precious iPhone into the bargain. Furthermore I faced the prospect of having to share a bedroom with at least two complete strangers! My mind was flooded with doubts and anxieties. I didn’t know anyone personally who had done the course and most people I told about it rolled their eyes and said it sounded really weird. I had spoken to a couple of experienced therapists about what I was planning to do and they had warned me that having 24 people locked up in a house together for eight days sounded like a recipe for some pretty explosive group dynamics. What had I let myself in for!
Florence House, where my Hoffman drama was to unfold, is a beautiful retreat centre standing alone in large grounds on a cliff on the outskirts of Seaford. By the time I got there about half the course delegates had already arrived, including a number who had travelled from France, Denmark and Switzerland. Judging by the BMWs and four-wheel drives parked outside, nobody attending the Hoffman appeared to be suffering any financial hardship (later I found out that this is not always so).
When my ‘teacher’ requested a meeting with me after supper, I was relieved to find myself warming to her and was impressed that she seemed to have thoroughly read and considered my pre-process questionnaire. I had felt slightly dubious when I discovered that Hoffman teachers are not necessarily trained therapists – they are all people who have done the Process and after a period of time have applied to do the very intensive training. But I was struck by my teacher’s intelligence, her passion for her work and confidence in her role and immediately felt in safe hands. She seemed to get the measure of me straight away. She explained that she would be checking in with me first thing every morning and at intervals each day to see how I was feeling, how much sleep I had got, and how I was responding to the work. I couldn’t remember the last time anyone had taken such an interest in my needs and it felt wonderful to be the object of such caring attention. However, as I was getting ready for bed one of my room-mates told me that we would be doing the ‘really heavy work’ in the first few days and I lay awake until the small hours feeling like I was standing at the opening of a long dark tunnel unsure whether I really wanted to step inside.
The first day was fairly gentle with some introductory talks and guided visualisations. We were asked not to direct comments to our fellow group members but to address these to the teachers. On the one hand this felt slightly infantalising but in retrospect I can appreciate how much it diluted the group dynamics – this was definitely not group therapy. We did a guided visualisation in which we focussed on the different aspects of our selves: our bodies, our intellects, our emotional child and the spiritual part of our selves, a structure that we would return to repeatedly throughout the week. I started to become aware straight away of how dominant my intellectual self was, how my emotional child rarely gets a look in and how I had certainly never given my spiritual self much thought at all.
Bob Hoffman who developed the Hoffman Process 40 years ago in California had been a spiritual healer before his work brought him into contact with the psychotherapy world. Hoffman understood human beings to have four aspects: the emotional, intellectual, physical and spiritual, which he called the Quadrinity. All aspects of our being need to be working together harmoniously for us to feel fulfilled but of course this is rarely the case. In his view, those of us exposed to Western culture give primary position to the intellect.
The second day was described as ‘mothers day’. Before lunch our teachers explained that we would spend a good chunk of time reviewing the negative traits that our mothers had unintentionally passed on to us, identifying a short list of their worst traits from our original questionnaires and then writing a long letter (minimum 10 pages) to the negative mother of our childhood, expressing anger about how these traits had damaged our lives, our relationships etc and how they were still affecting us. I scrawled all afternoon, barely lifting my pen from the page.
When we reconvened later that afternoon in the workroom with our completed letters, 24 cushions and 24 plastic bats had been laid out. My heart sank. They could not be serious! We were instructed to get angry about all those negative patterns we’d got from our mothers and to beat the cushions for all we were worth. All the cynicism that I had been holding at bay about this course emerged. I considered my position. I could leave now. One man had already made a quick exit and one of the teachers had gone off to find him. But leaving so soon seemed like failure, so with great reluctance I picked up the bat. I felt humiliated and angry – not about my mother’s negative traits but with the wretched teachers for putting us through this absurd pantomime.
We were at it all evening. What amazed me was how the majority of the group seemed to embrace the task full on. Within a short while people were red-faced, bellowing abuse at their cushions, bringing their bats down with all their force; others were sobbing, a few like me seemed to be frustrated that they weren’t feeling anything. I felt self-conscious and as if I was just hitting a cushion with a bat. I daren’t stop because I could feel my teacher’s gaze on me. I tried hard to feel angry but nothing really came. I just wanted to get it over with.
The next day we took up our bats to rage at our fathers. I tried really hard to take it seriously, particularly as one of my roommates told me that the bashing we were doing had a name – bioenergetics. She had practised it before and rated it highly. (Based on the work of Wilhelm Reich and founded by Alexander Lowen, bioenergetics is a way of understanding personality in terms of the body and its energetic processes. Bioenergetic Analysis, I discovered when I got home, can help to release chronic muscular tensions, manage affects, expand the capacity for intimacy, heal sexual difficulties and learn new, more fulfilling ways of relating to others.) As I described in the introduction to this article, it wasn’t until some time after I left the course that I actually felt the relief and elation that presumably many of my fellow course members were experiencing at Florence House.
During the course of the Process, we would move through awareness, expression and forgiveness to new behaviour. By halfway through the week we had completed the section of the course that was devoted to expressing anger and as we moved into the forgiveness phase things started to lighten up. For me one of the most moving parts of the work on our parents was a long visualisation in which our emotional child met the emotional child of our mother and then our father. We asked them, ‘How was it for you as a child growing up with your parents? Did you get your needs met? Were you lonely? What made you become so anxious, so controlling, so depressed?’ If I had ever fleetingly considered my mother’s and father’s childhoods, I had never stayed with those thoughts and feelings for any length of time and in such depth as I did now. (In my first experience of psychotherapy, forgiveness towards my parents didn’t come into it, rather the opposite, and I wonder whether perhaps I got stuck in a place of blame.) This was powerful stuff and for me has resulted directly in feelings of love and forgiveness towards my mother who I have resented most of my adult life.
When the Hoffman Process started in the UK in 1995, therapy had a bad reputation in the press, particularly the right-wing press, as being a threat to family coherence, the extreme end of which was of course false memory syndrome. As Serena Laurence, Director of the Hoffman Institute in the UK, explains: ‘We had a job to convince people that far from aiming to alienate people from their families, the Hoffman Process is about healing and bringing families together. The work we do on the Process isn’t about blaming your parents – it’s about recognising that no-one is to blame. It’s a rite of passage, severing the umbilical cord so that we can stop repeating the patterns that are passed down from one generation to the next.’
Space does not allow me to describe all my experiences during those 100 hours at Florence House. There was a huge variety of techniques and experiences on offer – some that I recognised as being drawn from Gestalt, psychoanalysis, CBT, TA and NLP. We learnt and started practising a number of tools that would support us when we left. The week provided a rich and unique space for exploration. The sheer intensity of spending that length of time focussing on myself was extraordinary. There was nowhere to run and no way of distracting myself from my feelings: there was no glass of red wine, no telephone, no work or children or other people’s problems to busy myself with. I had to stay with whatever came up. I felt like I had turned myself inside out. I wept buckets, felt wretched, despairing, cynical, optimistic and joyful. Through some of the experiential Gestalt work I actually felt like I was back in the body of my eight-year-old self, a shy and mute young child who was reluctant to join in.
What we did on the second to last day made a particularly lasting impression on me. I had a migraine and was lying on a cushion in the corner of the room while the rest of the group started dancing and playing games. I felt furious and didn’t want to join in. Then I started thinking about why I was so resistant to taking part. I was so busy feeling critical, sneering and aloof that I couldn’t entertain the idea of having a bit of fun. I started to think about how this pattern had developed early on in my childhood. Eventually I forced my body to get up and move. As the day progressed through games, silly races, dancing, fantastical visualisations and a party atmosphere, I forgot myself completely, my headache lifted and I felt spontaneous and exhilarated. I was having fun for what felt like the first time in years.
We reflected on the day later that evening. For me the day had been like having a mirror held up to show me how serious, how controlling, how joyless I had become. I understood with new clarity how my behaviour results in my feeling cut off and alone.
Not for the faint-hearted
I agree with Hoffman teacher Simon Matthews who says that the Hoffman Process is not for everybody and certainly not for the faint-hearted. It is hard work, extreme and all consuming and requires a lot of commitment and determination. ‘The majority of people who do the Hoffman Process are probably between 30–60 [people under 23 are not accepted onto the course],’ says Matthews. ‘I’d say about half of them have done some therapy. They’ve come to a realisation that what’s happening to them in life, in relationships, has something to do with them. We also have a number of therapists who come and do the Process,’ he adds. ‘They say it invigorates them and is a wonderful opportunity to look at their own issues.’
Addicts or alcoholics who are in the midst of substance abuse are not accepted on the course – they need to have been in recovery for about six months. ‘We also don’t take people who are suffering from major psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia. And we screen people very carefully for trauma. If we discover that there is trauma that is likely to surface on the Process, we encourage people to have individual therapy before they come.’ Others who are not accepted on the Hoffman Process include those for whom the time is not right. ‘Perhaps they’ve been cajoled into doing it. For example we had one chap who had been sent along by a woman whose daughter he wanted to marry. She’d told him that if he wanted to marry her daughter, he’d have to do the Process first and sort himself out! He sat there in a sullen grump all week and it was a complete waste of time.’
Matthews, who started his transpersonal psychotherapy training in 2004, feels that while the Hoffman Process will never replace psychotherapy, it is a great adjunct to it. ‘It’s never going to replace that long-term special one-to-one therapeutic relationship but I think that at a certain point in someone’s therapy it can really move them on. They can benefit from the wider variety of experiences it has to offer. On the Process we address people through their minds, through their emotions, through their spirits and through their bodies. It incorporates the best of all the traditions and synthesises them in a whole that works and hangs together beautifully.’
The Hoffman Process is available in 14 countries worldwide, including the US, Canada, Australia, the Middle East and Italy. There are already over 70,000 Hoffman graduates and the Process is growing. No advertising is involved but rather the law of attraction seems to be in operation. People tell other people about it or people see how their friends, partners and colleagues have changed after doing the Process and decide to do it themselves. Part of its appeal for increasing numbers of people with busy lives is its intensity. Its website displays numerous testimonies from well-known therapists, psychologists and others of its effectiveness. One describes the Process as being equivalent to a year’s good psychotherapy, although I personally found it a very different experience from psychotherapy.
While some research has been completed in the US, the UK team are keen to develop an evidence base from work in this country. One of the strengths of the Hoffman Process is its follow-up support which feels as caring and thoughtful as the rest of it. There are three post-process group meetings held over a six-month period, an email forum, support materials, one-to-one coaching with Hoffman teachers, reconnection days…
Serena Laurence tells me that they are increasingly aware that many people are looking for a quick fix for their emotional problems and at Hoffman they are wary of the Process being presented in the media as some kind of miracle cure. For me I recognise that this is an ongoing process and I am not yet where I want to be. I feel that I know and understand myself better but actually changing my behaviour is more challenging. There are already days when I forget my week at Florence House and the demands and imperatives of life seem to leave no space to even consider how I’m feeling. But there are already established changes too: I feel more peaceful; I’ve realised that I have a lot of pent-up rage stored in my body which needs to come out (I have now acquired an ideal plastic whiffle bat for this purpose) and as this has been happening I’ve noticed myself becoming more assertive; I know that I need to watch out for those fun-police; and, after 30 years of resentment and keeping old scores, I have made friends with my mother and my sister.
Some details have been changed to protect identities.
For more information about the Hoffman Process visit www.hoffmaninstitute.co.uk