Nirpal Dhaliwal reviews a Positive Psychology retreat with Resurface Surf Retreats near Agadir in Morocco and discovers an intensive week of surfing and group therapy that helps him hugely with his depression.
Therapeutic retreats had been effective treatments during my years of depression, and though I’m now thankfully out of the despairing depths, I was drawn to the Resurface Positive Psychology retreat in the Atlantic-coast town of Tamraght, a short drive from Agadir city in Morocco, after a conversation with Joshua Dickson, the clinical psychologist who runs it.
A practicing therapist who’s worked closely with addicts and depressives, he devised this week-long surfing-and-therapy intensive as a way to impart the principles of ‘positive psychology’ — a discipline he describes as “the science of human flourishing”.
Having spent so long being miserable, experiencing a bit of flourishing and learning to let go of my residual pessimism seemed exactly like what I needed.
On arriving, I was delighted to find my room was a large traditional Maghrebi-style affair, with a wide and luxurious oval-shaped stone bath and views over the vine-adorned courtyard.
The guests, myself included, consisted of four women and four men — ranging in age from their mid-twenties to mid-sixties, whose professions stretched from sales-management to writing and property-development — all of them open, friendly and empathetic. Our conversations over dinner segued easily from chats about films and music to heavier topics like antidepressant medication and twelve-step recovery programs. To be among people who’d all lived through experiences relatable to mine was liberating, allowing me to let my guard down and relax as I undertook the physical and emotional challenges of the week.
Bar a midweek break to visit the quaint fishing village of Imsouane for a surfing trip, each day began with an optional invigorating sunrise yoga class on the roof, followed by breakfast and then a scheduled morning lecture on an aspect of positive psychology; the rest of the morning then spent learning to surf.
Josh chose the surfing-therapy combination because physical activity is invaluable to lifting one’s spirits, and surfing is a particularly effective way to address depression and instill optimism: it engages one directly with nature, the perspective and healing power of the ocean; it creates blissful ‘flow’ states, when thoughts dissolve and one is squarely in the moment, keeping balance while gliding on the water; and it involves ‘mastery’, the learning of a new skill and the recognition that change is possible and easier than might be thought — an excellent way to break out of a rut of negative thinking.
‘Having spent so long being miserable, experiencing a bit of flourishing and learning to let go of my residual pessimism seemed exactly like what I needed. It was incredibly moving to see these people bravely confront their pain honestly and head-on, and it renewed my faith in the human spirit.’
Josh is warm, affable, considerate and a clear communicator. His morning lectures with titles such as ‘Positive Emotions’ and ‘Accomplishment’ were concise, grounded in scientific study, easy to follow and convincing, persuading me — a lifelong cynic — that I can, in time, become the cheerful captain of my own destiny.
The surfing lessons were, for me, an exercise in frustration, humiliation and ultimately, acceptance and tranquility. I’d never surfed before, though had always fancied it, and it took two days just to learn how to efficiently get aboard rather than clambering clumsily onto it like a walrus hauling itself up the beach. The few waves I caught, though, were a delight, and brought a wide smile to my face.
The lead-instructor, Youness Arhbi, was gentle, encouraging and focused on our wellbeing and enjoyment. His name means ‘good company’ in Arabic and ‘dolphin’ in Turkish, and he lived up to both descriptions: good-humoured and knowledgeable about the local culture and history, he was an inspiration as he rode the waves with effortless aplomb, sometimes standing on his head to emphasize his oneness with the board and ocean.
The mornings in the water shook up enough mental sediment to enable me to participate fully with the heavy emotional work of the afternoon sessions, in which Josh lead group-discussions on subjects including ‘Resilience’ and ‘Self-esteem’ before taking someone through a personal ‘psycho-drama’: a role-playing exercise in which they confronted an issue in dire need of resolution — be the break-up of a relationship, saying the goodbye that wasn’t possible when a loved one died, or the rehearsal of a difficult but necessary family conversation.
Listening and being involved in others’ psychodramas was as cathartic as doing my own. It was incredibly moving to see these people bravely confront their pain honestly and head-on, and it renewed my faith in the human spirit. Afterwards, I would unwind with another optional, gentle and decompressing yin-yoga session.
The week was a bonding experience. I may never become friends with my fellow guests, but there was definite fellowship created among us as we shared a deeply intimate experience, discussing each day over magnificent communal evening meals that always consisted of a traditional Moroccan feast — be it a chicken or fish tagine, skewered kebabs or, my favourite, roasted meats and couscous. Vegetarians were well catered for too.
Breakfasts were lacklustre affairs — cereal, bread, eggs and fruit — but generous, while lunch was often a hearty sandwich and portion of fries: not the healthiest offering, but much appreciated after a few hours of trying to conquer the surf.
I didn’t manage to get off my knees on the board, but compared to the beached-whale technique I had begun with, it was a massive transformation: a week longer and I might have stood up!
I did, however, end the retreat with a much clearer and calmer head and a much more positive outlook: the scale of the ocean putting my troubles in perspective, and the group-therapy bringing a greater sense of connection to others. My own psycho-drama brought me piercing realisation about a family matter that helped me recognise it’s time to let go and move on.
I learned to open up and trust in Tamraght. There, Josh suggested a particular twelve-step meeting I could attend in London to help me further in my recovery. Two days after my return, I walked through its doors. My journey continues, accelerated by my time with Resurface.