Comradery. Not the obvious description of a gay man’s relationship with his community.
However, after spending two months with a group of 13 men, over eight three hour sessions, I have very rarely felt closer to a gay man than I do today – and never this many at once!
Why? Because we shared our common struggle: Happiness is eluding us.
The Gay Happiness Project, founded by Robert Hutchinson and Christopher Samsa, uses mindfulness meditation and positive psychology to reintroduce gay men to the compassion and self-acceptance within them lost to past traumas and lingering shame.
The course challenges the stresses of daily life, body image and relationship issues.
On week one, I found myself sat in – or on the edge of – a chair in a room of gay men, daunted by sharing my darkest vulnerability and ready to leap out of the window.
As a strong advocate for mental health awareness, writing and speaking very honestly and openly about my own struggles with a anxiety disorder, I was surprised to find how much closer this project would bring me to my vulnerable core. But, that’s just what I needed.
By the end of the session I was moved by how brave these men were, to share their reasons for being present with a group of strangers and how they so wanted to find the happiness just out of reach. It was inspiring, and for the next seven weeks we connected on such a unique and powerful level I can only call comradery, nay, life long friendship.
I was seeing others truths for the very first time, and I no longer felt utterly alone – and this was a safe space free of judgement, and full of mutual understanding.
But, there is work to be done. With busy schedules it’s difficult to balance a new addition to routine, but you just have to try, be open and be honest. We are learning a new skill – meditation – and it takes practice and perseverance to achieve results. Dedication is key.
If you can take ten minutes to brush your teeth twice a day, you can take ten for this.
In the following weeks, the programme guided us, as a group, through vital elements including: mindfulness practice, problematic thinking, introducing compassion, how to thrive, finding authenticity, living with purpose and, ‘The Happy Ending’, of celebrating who you are.
The course is designed to integrate the group and generate a support system within one another as the course progresses, we are assigned a ‘buddy’ to stay in touch with throughout the week but also all welcomed to a private group on social media to share thoughts, personal stories and learned wisdom from time to time.
The way Christopher and Robert have delicately produced the course around this ethos encourages connection and importance with and to the group, in a way that fosters a caring and relatable dialogue. A wonderful and unexpected by product of this: compassion.
I struggle with self-compassion. Actually, I don’t have any compassion for myself at all. I didn’t understand how it didn’t equal giving up or whether I was even deserving of it as a person I deemed a ‘failure’ or at least one of life’s great, late bloomers.
So by week four, where compassion was our focus, it was so painful to realise how little compassion I afford myself, and I left the session almost in tears.
It wasn’t left unnoticed. I suspect we humans have a ingrained ability not to realise our own influence or presence. A few people from the group, who noticed I hadn’t been myself, messaged me privately to check in and show their support how they could.
‘The very intimate experience brought a tear to a few eyes…’
I felt part of a collective. Another thing I often haven’t personally felt in the gay community. These men were holding me up in my time of need, as I would for them.
I used this experience and the compassion I did have for others to gift myself with the same.
It would be a long road, but for the first time I felt a flicker of unconditional care for myself. I just needed to stoke the fire and it let burn brighter. I have these men to thank for that.
In week six, a simple activity, which I won’t disclose here because I fear it might alter the experience, instilled in all of us how far we’d progressed already together in such a short time. The very intimate (non sexual, of course) experience brought a tear to a few eyes and left a lasting impression that I, personally, still feel the warmth from now.
Hint: ImaginIng the futures of others, you visualise positivity and love. Now, what about your own? Well, you’ll see it in their kind eyes.
If you’re thinking the GHP sounds like it could be like other mindfulness or meditation courses you’ve researched, where your taught cold practical tips you could find on the internet and asked to go away and practice with notes, you’re wrong.
While there are elements of instruction, practice and presentation, the programme goes to the next level, it provides motivation, productivity and a key lifestyle change – positive interruption to our daily, mindless routines.
Christopher and Robert become not only mentors, but friends. They care about us all and our future: they want to see us flourish with our true purpose, which is also on the agenda.
I left the project with a new image of myself, new avenues to happiness I didn’t have perspective enough to see before, new friends, new skills and a changed lifestyle.
Practice makes perfect – where better to begin than surrounded by love and understanding?
The programme only ends with the beginning of the journey to our true purpose and belonging. What we learned, about our true selves, are the tools to pave a new road.
Is true happiness open to gay men? Just like everybody else, the answer is yes.
The Gay Happiness Project winter season programme begins on Wed 30 January 2019 in central London, concluding on 20 March 2019. The course fee, if booked before 31 December 2018, is £325, £375 thereafter.
The Gay Happiness Project is a not-for-profit mental wellbeing programme. More details about the course structure and how to book can be found on the website.