I set out for Michigan on September 23, a bit worried about the long drive as this was my first solo adventure in a while. But it was great: I got to listen to Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince on CD for nine hours straight each way, guilt-free—yay! Then, in an impressive display of self-control, I hit the pause button long enough to attend the 32nd annual five-day HSP Gathering in Fennville.
Fennville is a small town close to the southeast shoreline of Lake Michigan. It’s a lovely area with fields full of sunflowers, raspberries, blueberries, pumpkins, and grapes, and it is home to the Sundance Center, where Ulla Frederiksen, her co-teacher Penny, and her herd of five horses practice equine-assisted therapy—a special feature of this Gathering.
I knew that Jacquelyn Strickland would be co-hosting the Gathering with Ulla, that we’d be spending a whole day with Ulla’s horses, and that we didn’t need to know how to ride. Other than that, I had no idea what to expect—from the horses, or from the Gathering itself.
What happens when you put 21 sensitive people in a room?
I found out our first evening, and it was great. First you get the lighting worked out so no one has a bare bulb in their eyes. Then you track down that annoyingly distracting hum: the pool filter. What a relief to take care of these environmental adjustments without fuss or fear of judgment.
Then we began to share, filling in the blanks: “I found out about HSP when_____…and since then, I have__________.” Some of us have known for 18 years, others for a few months. People shared in a thoughtful, heartfelt, quiet way, until one woman (who said it was OK to share this) said, “I hope this doesn’t offend anyone…but….I found out about HSP when I googled, “Why am I so fucking sensitive?!”
We all burst out laughing, and to me, it felt like we became a sympathetic group at that moment. Who among us has not thought that (or had that flung at us by someone else)? The relief was palpable: it’s OK to be real. OK to be intense. Really OK to be honest and vulnerable.
Understanding HSP’s as a subculture
These are things we do not always feel free to do. This is why Jacquelyn Strickland founded the HSP Gatherings back in 2000 with Elaine Aron. Discussing the needs of HSP’s with Elaine, Jacquelyn emphasized our need for community and connection with other HSP’s in a culture where sensitivity is so easily marginalized or even stigmatized, and the two of them hatched the idea of getting groups of HSP’s together in this unique way.
I particularly valued the way Jacquelyn brought her social work perspective to bear on HSP culture in her presentations at the Gathering. Her application of cultural diversity concepts complements the “close-in” Focusing and listening work I do within myself and with my sensitive clients.
In our mainstream culture, the paradigm of “have, do, be” predominates: “Once I have “x,” then I can do “y,” so I can be/feel “z.”” We discussed how confused, discouraged, and disconnected HSP’s end up feeling as they try to conform to this materialistic approach to life.
Instead, we need to start by defining what truly makes us happy. And for HSP’s, that always means living closely connected to our values and beliefs—ours, not necessarily those of the popular culture. We need to define what makes our lives meaningful, and set up our lives so we can focus on that.
My equine guru
For me, meaning comes from my sense of spiritual connection, and I’ve increasingly craved a more direct, palpable experience of that. The horses—our fellow highly sensitive beings—granted my wish.
We observed the dynamics of the herd from a distance, then Ulla and Penny invited us to come closer. One of the horses came directly to me as I stood by the fence. She held her head very close to mine and I leaned my cheek into hers and held my hand on her face. We stood still like that for several minutes.
I could see into her great eye with its soft lashes. My chest filled up like a bubble. I felt as if I had received a divine transmission of love and presence, and somehow given it too. I can’t capture it fully in words, but you can see it in my face in the picture.
A shift of perspective
Coming away from the Gathering, I realized I was seeing my life differently. I’ve been critical of myself for not being more “successful.” I’ve never made much money and I can judge myself for not having achieved more. The life I live is simple compared to many people.
“Compared to many people….” That’s where I get snagged. Comparing myself to the mainstream isn’t helpful. My life has a sustainable balance of work and play, company and solitude, structure and flexibility. It works for me, and I’ve experimented patiently for many years to get to this point. It’s an ongoing process, and hanging out with a group of HSP’s who are also thoughtfully, passionately engaged in that process was very heartening and helped me focus with appreciation on what I have done, rather than what I haven’t done.
I’m profoundly grateful for that experience, and to Jacquelyn, Ulla, Penny, my 18 HSP human companions, and our five highly sensitive equine gurus for the whole Gathering and all the richness that came out of it. Thank you all!
For information about future HSP Gatherings, contact Jacquelyn Strickland.