x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

A path out of the shadows

Feature The Hoffman Process drives participants to confront and then bury their demons. Tim Laurence is the man charged with bringing the therapy to the Gulf.

Tim Laurence measures his life before and after the Hoffman Process. 'It allowed me to settle down, get married and have children... before I was always too restless.'
Tim Laurence measures his life before and after the Hoffman Process. 'It allowed me to settle down, get married and have children... before I was always too restless.'

The Hoffman Process drives participants to confront and then bury their demons. Hamida Ghafour meets the man charged with bringing the therapy to the Gulf. For eight days, students of the Hoffman Process are locked away in a hotel or country house where they learn about "negative love syndrome", meaning, as children, they took on the characteristics of their parents, good or bad, and have repeated them throughout their lives. Examining those "patterns of behaviour" and learning to break them is the path to a more fulfilling, productive life. That is the Hoffman Process in a nutshell and if all that sounds a bit like a happy-clappy California love-in, Tim Laurence is used to the scepticism.

The Londoner has moved part-time to Bahrain to oversee the expansion of the course into the Middle East. An Englishman in the Middle East teaching self-love? Maybe it is a sign of how much the Arab world is changing, or perhaps the British. "One thing I would say is I'm always interested in the other side, the shadow side of other cultures," he says over a latte one morning in Abu Dhabi after giving a talk at a yoga centre to drum up interest in the course.

"The shadow side of English politeness is hooliganism and violence. The shadow side of Abu Dhabi's materialism is a yearning, a hunger for spiritual values, values that are timeless. I'm now here for a few months to base myself and get things rolling on the Hoffman front, but also to try to absorb what people would understand the Hoffman to be, what they would expect it to be." The Hoffman Process was founded in 1967 by an American, Bob Hoffman, and combines several therapies, such as the Gestalt, psychodynamic, cognitive and behavioural. There is no pill popping; it is a residential course where about 20 adults over the age of 18 live, sleep and eat together for a week of intensive therapy. The Hoffman is about confronting personal demons and burying them once and for all. It has been recommended for people with a history of trauma or depression.

Hoffman, who died in 1997, was a successful businessman in San Francisco and turned to the field of therapy after the trauma of having his brother and mother die in the same year. Since it started in California, the Hoffman Process has expanded to 14 countries and treated more than 70,000 people. The course is being translated into Arabic for the first time with the help of Arab instructors, including a dynamic Bahraini, Abeer Almefleh. The next course, in English, will be held on Amwaj island in Bahrain starting on December 4.

"It is the Middle East's turn to see if this is a good fit," says Laurence. "What I want is for us to be here and to put on the course and [for it to be a] great one." Laurence, 53, is an unlikely poster child for the process. The son of two journalists, he grew up in Chelsea, a fashionable London neighbourhood, and was sent to boarding school. After graduating from university in 1978 he drifted around Asia, exploring Pakistan and Afghanistan before ending up in India."I somehow figured 10 years of British education may be balanced by India."

He learnt about yoga and meditation before going to California in 1981. It was before self-help therapy became part of mainstream American culture. He ended up staying for nearly 15 years, during which time he taught at the University of California, Berkeley. "But I noticed low-grade depression would resurface and relationship problems would resurface," he says. A friend recommended the Hoffman, and in 1989 he signed up.

"Bob Hoffman was there and he was my teacher and he made a profound, profound, impression on me. He was able to get through the hard layers of cynicism. My parents were journalists, so I had a lot of that." He now sees his life as being before and after the Hoffman Process. "It allowed me to settle down, get married and have children, whereas before I was always too restless. For me it was a rite of passage, which turned [me] from not trusting and immature, to trusting and mature, ready to take my place and contribute to the world."

The father of two boys is married to the British actress, Serena Gordon, who played Caroline in the 1995 James Bond film, GoldenEye. He moved back to England and launched the course in 1995, though it wasn't an easy task. "I remember waking up in the middle of the night and thinking, 'What am I doing here? Nobody is going to do this course. They don't want to talk about their feelings, they don't want to work in a group, they think it's Californian. Why did I give up my life there? It took five years to get established."

As director of Hoffman International, he is in charge of bringing the course to the Middle East. In December 2007, it was offered for the first time in the region in Bahrain, and the following year there was one in Abu Dhabi. Both were a success and attracted a mixture of westerners and western-educated Arabs. Getting more people to sign up, however, has not been easy; a scheduled course in Bahrain in February 2008 was cancelled because of a lack of interest.

The challenge in Britain was getting through the stiff-upper-lip culture, and the Arab world will have its own unique set of problems. The Hoffman makes few references to organised religion, and in the sessions, participants are encouraged to find peace with a "higher being, which some call God". That works in the secular and multicultural West, but in Muslim societies, Laurence is aware the instructors will have to be careful. But he doesn't think that will be a problem.

"If people need to get out for five times during the session to pray, they can. We have done that. People come to it and say, 'This has made my faith stronger'." The Hoffman organisers refuse to say exactly what happens during the week. There are hints about cushions being hugged, pillows bashed about and tears shed. That sounds suspiciously cultish, but the Hoffman has been endorsed by respected academics and psychologists, including Britain's Oliver James, who wrote in his column in The Guardian: "This is not some dodgy cult; there's no having to give 10 per cent of your wealth to a Rolls-Royce-driving Maharishi involved." Britain's public health service, the NHS, may soon offer it to patients.

Laurence says the element of surprise is vital to its success. "People often relate to the phrase 'it is a psychological detox'. It's when you think, 'I've had enough and I'm not going on another beach holiday to cure it.' The strapline in the UK is "when you are serious about change". What will the Arab strapline be? "It's sort of- it might come to me, or my wife, but I don't consciously think of it. I'm not slick at marketing," he muses out loud.

"We used to use 'a future different from your past', but actually, I'd like to see more of the past here. The strength of the family is so great, the clan, or the tribe." Laurence points out that Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government incorporates the eight-day course with an additional five leadership coaching sessions. "You need leaders here because they are starting an economy that needs people able to take decisions from an emotionally intelligent point of view and building a better future for everybody. And that isn't something to be taken lightly."

It isn't cheap, though; one course costs Dh16,000. In some ways, the approach he used to set up the course in England will be similar in the Middle East. "I knew immediately not to portray it as 'the most exciting course you can ever do, it's just fantastic'. So I've always underplayed and I've allowed the process to perform well and allow people to talk about it. It's by word of mouth. We don't actively go and recruit.

"I don't expect everyone to be interested in football and I don't expect everyone to be interested in personal development, but I agree with Socrates, 'There is no life worth living that is unexamined'. No, that's someone else. 'Know thy self'. That is Socrates." In fact, he said both.

In an article previously published in The National's Arts & Life section, Caroline Sylger Jones describes her experience of the Hoffman Process. The Hoffman Process is an intense, often bizarre eight-day personal development course to undertake only once in a lifetime. But you need to seriously want to change your life. It's expensive, you have to complete over 12 hours of autobiographical homework before the course, and you're asked to cut off contact with everyone you know and everything you are familiar with for a week. I went with the usual insecurities developed in childhood, the feeling that I took the negative view too often and a general sense of existential unease. The therapy aims to find understanding, forgiveness and acceptance of your parents for who they are, as well as self-understanding, self-forgiveness and self-love. Sounds quite a lot to achieve in eight days, I thought, not realising the timetable would run from 7.30am till 10pm most days. I wondered where I found my reserves of energy as I moved from one session to another, by turns feeling unsettled, unusual, frustrated and inspired. Much of the process demanded a suspension of disbelief, especially during the ritualised "bashing", a way of expressing a negative pattern or feeling by repeatedly hitting a giant purple pillow with a plastic yellow bat. At times I let go and felt as if years of suppressed anger were being released. At others I felt silly and uncomfortable.

You shouldn't expect to feel 100 per cent sorted after eight days - you are told that it will take time to integrate it into your life. Two weeks on, it's difficult to tell what effect it's had on me. I certainly feel greater compassion for my parents, and a greater understanding about how they were brought up and the challenges they faced. I also feel more self-aware - and curiously happy, though that may be because I'm just about to fly to Thailand on holiday.