Getting clarity in the Spanish mountains with mentor Jessica McGregor Johnson

Caroline Sylger Jones reviews a powerful and super-private three night life coaching retreat at a gorgeous guesthouse in the Alpujarras of Spain

‘Whether what came up during our two days was an emotional or practical issue, Jessica had a fun almost child-like playfulness to her that kept the energy light rather than heavy’.

When I spot the white washed village of Ferreirola from the window of our jeep my heart lifts – this is a classic retreat spot, the last village on a long and winding road through the Alpujarra mountains. Only 27 people live here year round, and one of them is Anne, who runs the delectably converted, 400 year old Casa Ana we now enter. My room is fronted by an orange tree and looks out on a flower-filled courtyard – a few steps away is a large terrace looking over the glorious mountains. I open my ears: the distant sound of a gushing river and bird song is all I hear.

I’m here for an intensive three night, two day coaching retreat with Jessica McGregor Johnson, an English mentor and guide who has made Andalucia her home and who uses various coaching techniques to help people of any age or life stage find a way forward with an aspect of their life. I have met Jessica and experienced a little of her coaching years ago on a Big Stretch life coaching holiday in Spain. This time, it is just her and me, with the odd B&B guest floating around, a graceful staff and those amazing mountains.

Once esconced in my white-washed double room at Casa Ana, which had chestnut wood beams across the ceiling and cooling hand-made terracotta tiles on the floor, my retreat begins with an easy chat over a delicious supper. Cooked by Wes, a Canadian who lives locally, our meal is a divine, perfectly cooked feast of goat cheese fitters with spinach and apple salad, coq-au-vin with parsnip cream and a desert of pears with cardamom and almonds. Wes comes to cook when there are at least four guests dining – otherwise, you have lunch at Casa Ana but Jessica takes you out locally for evening meals. We have a couple of glasses of Barbadillo white wine, retrieved from a guest fridge and paid for by an honours system, and after, an infusion of mint plucked straight from the garden. I go to bed happy, and ready for whatever is to come.

The next morning I do my own yoga in my room (Jessica had bought a mat at my request), then we meet on the terrace for a 15 minute silent meditation together – just simply sitting, watching our breath and listening to the sounds around us – if you’d never meditated before, she would simply guide you. Breakfast is eaten in a simple wooden-floored dining room with a view over the mountains, and starts with a glass of amazing-tasting fresh juice made from the local oranges (the kind that makes you wonder just where they get the tasteless oranges from that we eat in the UK). Then we have fresh melon, cereal, scrambled eggs and green tea/coffee, which sets us up for a little walk to the nearby restored era – a circle of stone that farmers used to use for sorting crops. Jessica stops enroute to have us smell some fragrant yellow Broom flowers growing along the path, and we fill our water bottles at the nearby spring. It’s typical of her approach – in slowing down and taking stock, we make more progress in the end.

The coaching begins in earnest about 9.30 am. Sat on the warm stone of the era with the sun warming our backs and looking out over an expansive mountain view, we review my ‘intention’ for the retreat. Before my arrival Jessica had asked me to write down a little ‘life review’ to help me identify what I wanted to work on – what life was like now in all its aspects, from financials and career to home life and relationships, what an ‘ideal’ scenario might be, and what my ‘intention’ was for our two days together. I’d chosen something very specific to do with my career to focus on, which we talked about in very practical terms for a little bit, then Jessica asked me to do The Passion Test, which we started in the stark sunshine on the era and completed many hours later in the shade back at Casa Ana’s terrace.

The Passion Test is a method for finding your passions and purpose in life devised by Janet Bray Attwood and Chris Attwood, and I found this particular part of Jessica’s tool kit to be funny, clever and revelatory. I jot down a set of 20 statements about my ideal life… ‘I am living in a gorgeous house by the sea… I have a daily massage by an amazing bodyworker… I am a bestselling novelist… I have a stack of cash in the bank’ – you know the type of thing – from which, over the course of a few hours, with some laughter, tears and soul-searching thrown in, Jessica asks me to choose just five key ‘passions’ by getting me to compare each of my statements by how they make me feel.

‘Close your eyes, and feel what it would be like if you had your novel published but didn’t have a daily massage’ asks Jessica (no brainer – I’ll take the novel please). ‘Now what does it feel like if you had your novel published but didn’t have a harmonious, thriving relationship with your husband and child?’ (Hmmm… I’ll take the harmonious relationship please). And so on.. Out of this process I end up with five scenarios which I take as my ruling ‘passions’ for this time in my life (passions can change as life moves forward) – and which inform our work over the two days. I then come up with a set of ‘markers’ for each passion – specific things that will help me be clear on what living my passions will look like (‘I am looking with awe at my first royalty cheque’ – for example) – so that I am able to make decisions that take me in the right direction.

‘Whether what came up during our two days was an emotional or practical issue, Jessica had a fun almost child-like playfulness to her that kept the energy light rather than heavy’

After four hours of such intense thinking I’m ready for a tasty lunch of tortilla with salad followed by a brownie graced with rasperries (I certainly don’t go hungry over these two days), after which I’m free to do as I like for the rest of the afternoon – each afternoon is deliberately kept clear so that you have time to digest what you’ve gone through that morning. It’s June and beautifully sunny, so I take a two hour walk from the house along an ancient mule path through the mountains, occasionally stopping to rest in the shade, passing only a couple of mountain bikers changing a tyre. After a shower and a nap I’m ready for a follow up coaching session, this time on one of Casa Ana’s lower terraces and over a class of wine, during which we cover a few more things that have occurred to me on my walk. Inspired and motivated, we head out to Capileira, another nearby white-washed village for an outdoor supper of local lamb and green beans.

Replete, I sleep well, then on the following day Jessica gets a giant tick from me because she uses The Work of Byron Katie, a form of meditation designed to raise your awareness of your thought processes in any situation, to help me pick through a particularly emotive issue. I’d discovered this woman’s ingenious method on a wellbeing escape in Oman a few years before with Steve Harvey, the spa manager and an excellent coach, and am delighted that Jessica uses it too.

As we move through each session on the retreat, whatever its focus, I find Jessica to be naturally warm, easy to be with and non judgemental. I like her focus on ‘going with the gut’ – on what ‘feels’ right – and on being yourself, both ‘real’ and ‘vulnerable’. Never does her presence or questions feel intrusive, and I always feel I can trust her. Whether what came up during our two days was an emotional issue (such as how to deal with a member of my extended family with whom I just didn’t ever connect) or a practical issue (such as how to plan my work load better), Jessica also had a fun almost child-like playfulness to her that kept the energy light rather than heavy – it’s no surprise that she uses witty cartoons to illustrate her books, devised by her partner, Beatrice, a designer).

By midday on the last day my head feels full, so we break earlier than planned (such is the beauty of being on a one-to-one retreat) and I walk before lunch, this time choosing a more shaded, shorter amble to the nearby village of Fondales through a landscape that is less exposed than yesterday and which suits my mood. It’s tranquil everywhere – a farmer tending his beans in a field and a solo cat washing himself beside a pot of enormous pink geraniums are the only sign of life other than my footsteps.
After a shower and another nap (I told you it was intense), we have a longer session in the afternoon, this time in the serene guest sitting room, sat on comfy white armchairs with the doors thrown open to the mountain air. The session finishes with a clear list of the next steps I’m to take on my return, and a check that I have someone back home who will listen to my goals and support me. Later that evening I wander the village, watching bats flying and passing a man in his workshop making wooden guitars.
Jessica calls herself a guide and mentor rather than a coach because she gives advice – and I loved this about her too. Conventional coaching training urges coaches not to give advice – I’d experienced a newly qualified coach a few years before asking me a never-ending series of open-ended questions designed to help me find the answers to my questions myself. It was intensely irritating. By contrast, Jessica delves into her life experience – from getting married to the wrong person to being a hang gliding addict to spending four years living in an ashram – to offer guidance every step of the way. Yet she’s clear that just talking to her isn’t going to change your life – there’s work to be done, by you, and she’s there as a guide to help facilitate it.

All Jessica’s advice is also underpinned by a strong practicality, and one of the most useful things I learnt from her – aside from sound business advice – was to get rid of my ‘to do’ list – something that had been terrorising me for a long while. Instead, I was to put whatever I needed to do straight into my diary (leaving plenty of time for things to take longer and for unexpected tasks), and everything that was an idea or could be nice in theory on a gentle list that could be reviewed every few months – or never looked at all.
Our final meal is in the sunshine square of Pampaneira, after a spot of shopping (local Manchego cheese, locally made chocolate, a spanish rug for my bedroom). I leave the next day with a head full of ideas and a heart that feels braver than before. A day later, I get a detailed, motivating email from Jessica summarising all that we had spoken about. A month on, and I feel clearer than I ever have about which direction I’m heading in. I’d come back and do the retreat again with Jessica in a heartbeat.