I'm sitting in a cosy room in the Hunter Valley, NSW, surrounded by picturesque bushland, sharing some of the deepest, darkest experiences of my life with a group of total strangers.
I'm facing raw truths, revisiting childhood traumas, letting go of all the anger, sadness, shame and regret that's been bottling up for decades.
“By day three, I’m a puddle of tears naming my heart’s deepest longings.”
It's all part of a self-development retreat called Path of Love. Developed in India in 1995, and now held in 14 countries, Path of Love is where psychotherapy meets spirituality, meditation meets prayer, and bodywork meets a dance party.
I signed up for this retreat a few months after my husband died.
We were soulmates who shared a great love we knew we were lucky to find. After a friendship that spanned nearly 30 years, we finally married in 2012. Cancer was a cruel bedfellow and four years later I lost the love of my life.
The grief was crippling. There were days – many of them – when I thought I might break. My counsellor suggested I try Path of Love. So, here I am, two hours north of Sydney, with 32 other participants from all walks of life. We say our goodbyes to alcohol, cigarettes, coffee, meat, sugar – even our mobile phones – all of which are put on hold for a week.
Accommodation is a charming rustic cabin with a deck that overlooks dense trees and shrubs. There's a big, comfy bed, but we don't get to rest much. For the next seven days, from 6am until late in the evening, our schedule is demanding.
Path of Love invites you to delve into your psyche and change the relationship you're having with yourself and the world. It's physically and mentally rigorous, but it's also exciting, surprising and a lot of fun. The process happens mostly in silence. We only speak during group "sharing and witnessing" sessions.
Everything is meticulously planned.
Meditation, group therapy, role-play, self-reflection and dancing are all daily activities, along with evening sessions with a range of teachers from both a spiritual and a psychological background.
At dance sessions the music includes gentle acoustic or doof-doof dance beats and you're encouraged to move intuitively. The dancing, about an hour a day, is exhilarating and a therapy in itself. If you love to dance, this is the juiciest part of the week.
In the serene silence I begin the journey inward. By day two, I'm desperate to break free from constant thinking, from the constraints of my own judgments, beliefs and conditioning. By day three, I'm a puddle of tears naming my heart's deepest longings.
What is so extraordinary about Path of Love are the facilitators who outnumber participants by at least two to one. Someone is always at your side, aware of the process. In this space of safety, support and love, my heart melts. Childhood wounds open and heal, and I uncover parts of myself I'd forgotten. Slowly, miraculously, the difficult feelings give way to peace, gratefulness, acceptance and joy
On the last day we're given exercises to do at home to help us reintegrate into "real" life. The after-care support includes online forums so we can all share how we're faring weeks later.
I came away with a new resilience. I feel more connected to myself, to others, to nature and to this extraordinary gift of being alive. I will always miss my beautiful soul mate, but death is a powerful teacher – it teaches us how valuable life is.
Joanna Webber was a guest of Path Retreat's Path of Love flagship retreat.
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