“Okay everyone, for the next part of the exercise, we’re going to practice eye gazing for two minutes.” There was a collective gasp as the participants tried to envision staring into a complete stranger’s eyes for two minutes. Even as a staff member, I was feeling a little nervous as I had never performed this feat either. “Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and relax your body.” I drew a shaky breath and exhaled slowly, wanting to give myself as much time as possible to prepare. “Now open your eyes and look into your partner’s eyes. Two minutes starting now.” I opened my eyes and looked into the most beautiful blue eyes I’d ever seen. For two minutes I felt myself get lost in her eyes, drawing me deeply into the depths of her soul. As I looked into her eyes, I realized that at the same time, I was feeling seen for the first time in my life. No pretense, no quick smiles or misdirection. There was nothing but the two of us in those moments and we connected in a way that I didn’t know was possible. For the rest of the weekend, just being near her was enough to make me feel whole and comfortable. Welcome to the Herpes Opportunity weekend.
As a staff person, part of my job was to create a “container” in which to hold the participants. When I first heard that phrase, I was a little skeptical. So we’re going to stuff them in a tupperware container and they’ll marinate for a few days before we throw them on the grill? In reality, creating a container means establishing boundaries and agreements to give participants and staff safety and security as they experience raw emotion. It means allowing someone to be angry, or sad, or happy, and holding all of those emotions as they are, instead of trying to give advice or to fix or cheer up. It also means allowing people to experience the exercises without an agenda. Our role was not to crack people open from the inside (although that did happen for many of the participants). Our role was to create space for emotional exploration and experience and to honor any progress that was made, even something as seemingly small as being able to notice not being ready to take a step forward.
I watched a group of people who came from all over the US, Canada, and even one from Europe, gather together because they wanted to explore their feelings surrounding their Herpes diagnosis. Walking in, many of the participants looked nervous, closed off, and anxious. The staff chatted with them as we waited to begin, assuring them that they were welcome here and that we cared. Some of them heard us, others still looked skeptical. We began with a grounding meditation to set our intentions for the weekend. What did we want to get out of this weekend? Inner peace? Acceptance? Less self-hatred? The skills to tell our deepest secrets? It became apparent that this group was going to be special when one participant began to cry during the meditation. Immediately a feeling of relief spread throughout the room and others began to cry as well. That brave soul gave the rest of us permission to be vulnerable. That vulnerability allowed the participants and staff to have a truly transformative experience in those three days. By the end of the weekend (and even before then) people were crying together, holding one another, and expressing deep and profound love for each other.
For me especially, as a person who struggles to be present in my body, this weekend was like learning a new language. I have a tendency to either focus on the past (my traumas, cheating boyfriends, feelings of inadequacy) or feel intense anxiety about the future (what's next? when will my career take off? how am I going to pay bills next month?) I have found it difficult to practice mindfulness, even though I've read all the books and have a deep desire to be present. This weekend I finally learned how to do it. By noticing sensations in my body, noticing my thoughts as they occur, noticing feelings that arise, and expressing those sensations, thoughts, and feelings to others, I am able to connect with my body in an authentic way. I was able to say things like, "I'm noticing a tightness in my chest right now and a clenching in my stomach" instead of simply labeling that feeling as "anxious" and moving on. I was able to sit with my feelings and not be tempted to suppress them because they might make someone uncomfortable or because they want to cheer me up. I'm a people pleaser. If I tell you that I'm sad, or I cry, and you tell me "don't cry, it's going to be okay, things will work out, etc." I will push myself through those emotions because you said so.
I’ve never experienced a space where I could feel so loved, supported, and held (emotionally and physically) as I did that weekend. I think the most incredible part for me was feeling like I could finally accept love and praise from others. In the past, I had always managed to deflect compliments because I refused to let myself believe I was worthy to receive them. In this environment, even when I tried to push away the words that people said to me, I couldn’t disregard the tears in their eyes or the intensity of their hugs. To all of the participants and staff, thank you for creating a space in which I could grow and feel truly loved and supported. I feel more connected than I thought possible and I cannot wait to share that connection with the world.