This is an article I wrote after attending the International HSP meeting in June 2018, the last one to be held outside the USA. If you are highly sensitive, I highly recommend meeting other HSPs; there are several monthly groups on meetup.
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A personal journey at the 34th HSP Gathering Retreat – Dorset, England,
June 14-18, 2018
By David Wilson
I first met Barbara Allen-Williams from the National Centre for High Sensitivity in the UK (www.hspsensitive.com) earlier in 2018, and from this meeting became aware of the HSP Gathering Retreats co-founded in 2001 by Jacquelyn Strickland (www.lifeworkshelp.com ) and Dr. Elaine Aron (www.hsperson.com) in the U.S. After learning that the next, the 34th HSP Gathering was only two hours away from me by road, I did everything I could to attend.
One of the things that really struck me prior to the event was Jacquelyn’s email two weeks or so beforehand. In it she shared being anxious about what to expect, what the participants might be like, and how the event would unfurl. For me this showed real ownership of her vulnerability as well as her strength and obvious sensitivity; it allowed me to consider my own thoughts and feelings, my reservations and apprehensions. I knew at this point I was going to really enjoy the gathering.
There was some preparation, or homework, prior to the event. This was extremely useful and I saw it as part of the course. There was an article to read by Dr. Elaine Aron; some thought provoking questions about what you wanted to get from the retreat; anything you would like to ask Jacquelyn or Dr. Aron; and a 2 hour, 2013 Soundcloud recording of a lecture Dr. Aron gave in New Zealand. Although this lecture was five years old, it was still very informative and current. https://m.soundcloud.com/highlysensitive/elaine_aron_wellington_nz_2013
I had a long think about what I really wanted to get from this retreat. I had heard from Barbara that being together in a room of HSP’s was really different, magical even, and this energy was certainly something I wanted to experience for myself. I am a trained therapist and learnt of the trait in 2015, yet I was still eager to learn more about high sensitivity as well as perhaps sharing some of my knowledge. Finally, I wished to make connections with my “tribe”, which I hoped might last beyond the retreat.
So after this preparation work, the arrival day came round really quickly. I had taken a gamble with the English weather and had chosen to camp. Apart from a brief shower early one morning, with rain tapping on the canvas around 5:00 am, it was a gamble that paid off. I initially pitched fairly “publically” for a highly sensitive person, as suggested by the venue, close to the toilet and shower block, but after the first night hearing what I imagined was a giant washing machine with boulders inside it (it turned out to be an anaerobic digester) I decided to move to a more quiet location with a breath-taking view and a whole field to share with various birds and the odd squirrel.
The grounds of the location were simply stunning, a huge estate with an array of different trees, a sea of green in every direction, with even the lake covered by algae. (www.gauntshouse.com)
The group was facilitated by Jacquelyn from the U.S., and she was joined by co-hosts Barbara Allen-Williams from the U.K. and Annet deZwart (www.highsensitivecoaching.com) in The Netherlands. The attendees were relatively international too, with the 24 participants coming from England, Scotland, Ireland, the Czech Republic, Italy, Sweden, Denmark, Germany and the USA. The group was 20:4 in favour of women; no real surprise there, perhaps. As regards extroverts to introverts, the ratio was 6:18 which is exactly 30% of the group, as per Dr. Aron’s original research. I loved the diversity of our group because for me, it really made things more interesting and is what made it work so well.
The ground “rules” were certainly different from other retreats you may go on: Focus on Needs, Not Approval, and Trust the Process, even if feeling confused or vulnerable, always asking: “What is there for me to learn in this moment? And, “What do I need in this moment.” There was no obligation to attend any session, or turn up on time, or stay for the duration; no pressure.
The first evening I knew would be “interesting”, when everyone would be finding their feet and starting the process of getting to know each other. Although we were brought together due to our trait, and being judged wasn’t going to be on the cards, I know I still get overwhelmed in groups. We were asked to introduce ourselves, and say a few words about what we resonated with in the pre-course reading. When feeling overwhelmed, it is very easy for me to forget what I want to say. In the past, I have often found myself not listening to others because I was too focused on what I “should” say. Then afterwards, I would focus on what I forgot to say. I made a concerted effort to change this pattern for this group and gladly was able to do so. Time will tell if I can repeat this.
There was plenty to take in on the first evening: the comprehensive programme booklet to read, new people to talk to, and the location to explore. So adhering to, “focus on needs not approval”, I went off to sleep.
Day two started with a grounding meditation, and then we briefly covered safety, which, for me, knowing what the dynamic can be like in some groups, was very important for all of us.
Jacquelyn then shared a really interesting aspect from my point of view: A Spiritual Journey to Empowerment for the HSP. This presentation covered so many angles and despite having done lots of work on myself, I took so much from it. Even though I started off on my own spiritual path some time ago, I learned this spiritual path is not any easier than staying in the mainstream, yet it is most definitely more authentic, more natural, and better suited for a HSP. I am grateful to have left mainstream culture, or as Jacquelyn calls it ~ “Highway 101” ~ and perhaps gone a bit too far off the beaten track on occasion, but thankfully, have never returned to the “mainstream highway.” This session confirmed that as an HSP, I am on the right path and it will be helpful to draw on this knowledge when I find myself experiencing difficult times.
There was a “free write” exercise, which for someone largely in their head, I found more difficult than I thought it would be. It was touching to hear heartfelt sharing from others who seemed to find the free write exercise helpful and illuminating.
Later that day we did a “Conversation Café” (www.conversationcafe.org) following a set of guidelines that are designed to avoid judgement, and foster curiosity and sincerity. I teamed up with the three other guys to discuss what being a HSP means for me as a man. This was a powerful exercise, validating, empowering, and very humorous on several occasions. We later summarized our findings to the group, and heard from all the female HSP’s in the group how much they valued the sensitive traits, such as compassion, empathy, and deep processing that come with being an HSP male.
During day 3 there was a viewing of Sensitive: The Untold Story, the 60 minute film by Dr. Aron, featuring Alanis Morissette, and also a brief appearance by Jacquelyn, the co-founder of the HSP Gathering Retreats. (www.sensitivethemovie.com) I had already seen this and been moved to tears, so this became the only organised event I missed. Instead, I teamed up with a few others who had seen the film, and went in search of the sea, as the gorgeous Dorset coast was only a few miles away.
Art Night took place that evening and I happily used the words and images that jumped out at me to make a collage. I wonder if in future events, coloured pencils, pens, and even paint could be on offer? Having done my collage, I then set about unleashing my creativity completely and designed a HSP flag, using a shade of blue similar to the UN Flag to symbolise the world, peace and unity. I added a star as I feel all HSP’s are stars in their own way, then raided the remains of the cut outs for the collages, and added the letters HSP. I just needed to pop outside and scour the ground for a suitable fallen branch, and the “flagpole” was made; perfect for an “HS Republic” somewhere on earth?
By Day 4, I was feeling more open and liberated as well as tired.
We started by addressing a “rupture” within the group, and from my more distant viewpoint it was handled well by all concerned. It made my think that you never know what might come up with a mix of people, even HSP’s, and group dynamics can be very powerful.
Annet, Barbara and Jacquelyn then shared their unique way of staying centred and connected to the “Authentic HSP Self.” Annet shared about her work with the Energy Leadership Index (ELI); Barbara shared how she connects to a larger purpose for the HSP; and Jacquelyn shared a model she created to curb rumination called Integrated Wholeness of the Heart. Each short presentation was equally valid and interesting, but I was most drawn to the ideas concepts from the Energy Leadership Assessment.
Knowing that tonight was Creative Night, I started to wonder what I might do. I knew I wanted to participate in Creativity Night, because the opportunity was too good to pass by. Initially, I thought of writing a comedy play about being a guy and a HSP. There wasn’t really much time for the writing, let alone any time to rehearse and this assumed the other three guys were up for it. Shelved. Maybe buoyed by the fact that there was a Swede and a Dane in residence, I wanted to make a Kladdkaka, a Scandi chocolate cake. I didn’t have any ingredients, or a suitable baking tray; the Gaunts House kitchen was off limits for health and safety as well as insurance reasons. However the attentive staff, not wanting to dampen my enthusiasm, suggested I could use an ordinary oven in one of the guest accommodation apartments. So the option was there, but again “needs not approval” meant I shelved this one too. A poem it was.
We were told that Creativity Night has always been a very special part of the HSP Gathering Retreats, and I would have to say this evening was one of several highlights of the HSP Gathering. A few creative HSP’s took the initiative to turn the large ballroom at Gaunts House into a magical room with candles illuminating and reflecting off the mirrors. Everyone that participated had a unique talent to share including stories, song, comedy, poems and even handmade wooden necklaces. Two residents from Gaunts House decided to join our evening sharing original songs and poetry accompanied by guitar. An elderly resident, a gentleman from Guatemala walked to the stage assisted by his beautiful handmade cane for stability. He recited passionately two poems in his native language. Although most could not understand the language, his heartfelt expressions were a very moving and inspirational experience. Many of us had tears in our eyes, as did he. It was a truly amazing and emotional evening.
Before Creativity Night, and our own live performance, there was still time to Zoom to America for a live link up with Dr. Elaine Aron. Elaine gave a talk called “The Shadow Side of Belonging” following up on the theme of the Gathering which was “Knowing and Being Known as an HSP: Our Role in Belonging. This was followed by questions and answers and several pearls of wisdom. This was right up there as another one of the Gathering’s highlights. Due to time zone constraints, our time with Elaine lasted 90 minutes but it seemed to be over in 90 seconds.
The final day invited us to watch a short 20 minute film featuring children, who were most definitely highly sensitive, sharing their experiences being in nature. This film was created in the Netherlands by Culturele Mediaproducties and MediaFonds, in conjunction with the NPS. This film really blew me away and sadly there was no immediate time to discuss, as our final “Nature as Teacher & Healer” exercise was upon us. We were instructed to “wander about outside following a sense of what we were attracted to. This special place would be a place outside where we felt welcome and at peace, and it would become our place where we were invited to welcome all of our senses: what we were seeing, feeling, sensing, thinking and to become aware of any images or memories from past or present to enter this special place with us. To walk barefoot around my chosen tree was fantastic. This time I even managed the “free write” which ended up like a non-rhyming poem, summing up the intensity of all my feelings generated by my attendance at this unique retreat.
Returning to our group after the nature exercise, the 18 introverts were encouraged to share first this time. I think Jacquelyn got this about right, not too much pressure, but just enough to encourage some of the more reluctant amongst us to speak up first. This included me, and I was glad I could speak allowing my emotions to be part of what I shared.
It was then the beginning of the end. I remember saying to the group that people do endings in different ways and they are all OK; so I hugged some, shook hands with one, and didn’t say good-bye at all to one or two others.
Throughout the course, there was plenty of opportunity to mingle, socialise, swap stories as well as have time for yourself. Looking back now, I would have liked to have spent more downtime for myself, but this was obviously my choice.
So if you asked me, “Would I go to a gathering again”? I’d have to say “yes” perhaps to a location in mainland Europe or America. For the moment I think my HSP wife would enjoy a retreat perhaps somewhere near New York, so she’s now next in line ~ maybe the 35th HSP Gathering Retreat to be held in Phoenicia, New York, September 30-October 4, 2018.
Finally, I would say that it is important that you are in a good enough place yourself, and if you are up for some personal development and wish to learn more about the HSP trait, then you would really enjoy it.