The Embercombe Experience

On one of the first warm weekends in June, sixteen On Purpose associates arrived at Embercombe — excited but perfectly clueless about what was to come next. Not that knowing in advance would have done any justice whatsoever to the experience we shared together that weekend.

How do you describe an experience like Embercombe? I wasn’t alone in my struggle to share it with friends and family. All attempts usually ended with an emphatic “you just had to be there!” I couldn’t quite convey the impact it had on me, or on us as a group.

I could tell you about what we did there — something about good leadership, about team building, wild activities and mouth-watering treats. But that doesn’t really explain what Embercombe really does. What it curates for people who stumble into its open, all-encompassing embrace. That feeling of being still with the silence of nature, yet alive with the fire of our potential.

This question stayed with me, unanswered and restlessly placed in the back of my mind, throughout the summer. How could I ensure this transformative experience was not lost — not left behind in the safety of Embercombe?

We made a leap. We joined On Purpose with visions of changing the world, our veins throbbing with unbridled adrenaline that made anything possible. But, then what? How could I put what I learnt into action?

It felt like grasping at smoke. The more I tried to hold it, articulate it, the more it eluded me. It took a spontaneous decision to escape to the deserted shores of Camber Sands over the August bank holiday — the first break in my routine since Embercombe — for me to recognise that the change had already begun.

Why did we struggle to share our experience? Sure, it was something special, something we shared between us, but more importantly — it was something deeply embedded in self-reflection: learning to see things in ourselves, with no two experiences the same.

It was about relationships too. Connecting and reconnecting with ourselves, with others, with the world around us. To reflect upon and find our place in all of it. A sense of coming together, not as an insignificant cog, but a part of a living whole (we did literally have an “organism” game).

Introduced to the concept of Johari’s Window, we were brought a little closer to meeting our “unknown self”, guided as we were through the whole spectrum of selves (from intimate feedback circles to emotional fireside stories told under dark, open skies). Brené Brown, in her TED Talk “The power of vulnerability”, explains it best: “for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.”

And of course, how could one not enjoy the beauty of simple things — all too rare in today’s world: waking to the sound of nature in yurts more comfortable than the concept would suggest; the luxury of rediscovering the joy of mysterious things. Days began with a palpable sense of curiosity and ended with a kind of fulfilled “happy-tired” that comes only after a day of perfectly exhausting mental and physical (sometimes hilarious) activities, bellies full of good, thoughtfully prepared food.

So what did Embercombe show me?

Perhaps the kind of leadership I should aspire to? My takeaway here is that you really, really don’t have to go it alone. There are so many more possibilities, and exciting new directions to be uncovered, when you take a moment to learn from, share and work with others.

Something (a lot) about knowing yourself and empathy? Most definitely. But Embercombe also unexpectedly gave me the tools to chart out a new journey for myself.

One of our wonderful facilitators quoted Martin Shaw’s philosophy that modern society is just “three days deep”. What a fascinating concept — one that we saw played out over our weekend. A three-day deep immersion into the mysterious wild. A disruption to our norm and routine (with the bonus of, at best, patchy mobile signals in the English countryside). Good food and physical activity created the perfect symbiosis to bring our passions rushing to the surface. By simply being fully present in the moment, we connected with ourselves and our surroundings.

Embercombe doesn’t have to just be a place. Perhaps it can be a state of mind, found time and time again when we create a little quiet space in our minds to reflect and be present in the moment. I found it on the bank holiday, lost to the world on the sandy shores of Camber, and I now find it, time and time again, even when all I can do is put on my headphones and take a moment to reflect on my day.

I hope you can find that moment too.

Embercombe is a social enterprise and valley in Devon which runs experiential and leadership development programmes. Each year, On Purpose Associates attend a weekend residential, which is a core part of the On Purpose programme. Our residential was led and facilitated by Kanada Elizabeth Gorla and Johannes Moeller.