Sunday, 29 May 2011

A Trip Down Memory Lane...

Returning to the once familiar surroundings of school evokes a strange mixture of feelings.  Memories of halcyon days, formative experiences and influential characters who have, undoubtedly, shaped my own.  I am left wondering, who is it that we 'reunite' with at a reunion?  Perhaps it is more about reuniting with parts of ourselves that may have been left behind in the environs of old than with those we shared them.

Wandering without aim around the streets where I had some of my earliest retail relationships, remembering the easily forgotten and noticing how much things have changed was illuminating on different levels.  Change is inevitable and yet, when returning to school, one could be forgiven for feeling that it shouldn't.  School was once a constant, as we were confronted by a panoply of change.  It stood for constancy.  Term after term, time seemed to stand still.  Until we left.

Parts of the fabric of the school seemed to have changed beyond recognition but as we explored there were remarkable facets that have remained untouched:  the less tangible memories conjured by sights, sounds and smells capable of transporting us back into our uniforms. 

We reflected on the sense that we held, whilst anticipating our own imminent departures, that the status quo was exactly as it should be, that it was 'our' school - a defence against the fear of being 'replaced' by pupils that would, like us, leave their books exposed to the elements in the quads, ascend the stairs and pace the corridors we once knew every inch of.  Far from unique, this narcissistic quality of a particular stage of youth, had been replaced with a maturity eager to reminisce amongst those who understood.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Defying Boundaries

Having enjoyed 'Flawless: Chase the Dream' tour I find myself reflecting on the amazing capability of the human body.  Incredible to think that we share the same skeleton as such amazing artists whose moves truly defy gravity and are a testament to strength and flexibility.  Their work is truly inspirational, and the show absolutely captivating.

Britain really does have talent and groups like Flawless prove it.  Their commitment and dedication are obvious; their passion intense.  I wonder what the dynamics backstage look like, and how they have adapted to their sudden celebrity status, and all that entails.

Not for everyone, perhaps but certainly worth a look.  Streetdance is a different form of live entertainment, and the audience had high expectations.  There can be no doubt that the genre is fun, a real feast for the eyes, but I found there was another very important dimension to the show:  heart.

With my foot tapping, and my heart racing, I struggled to believe my eyes and felt my spirits lifted as they progressed through their immaculate acrobatic (and, at times, aerobatic) routines.  These guys are brilliant at what they do.

Inspired and inspiring.


Thursday, 26 May 2011

Person Under a Train. People Left Behind.

Hearing the words "due to a person under a train" inspires a range of emotions with which I would not usually choose to connect during rush hour in London.  I heard this announcement most recently this morning, when passengers were being forewarned of delays and possible interruptions to the service.

The London Underground or 'tube' network serves 270 stations and spans over 250 miles (making it the second longest, after Shanghai).  It carries over a billion passengers a year (making it the third busiest metro system in Europe after Moscow and Paris), and has statistically low accident rates, with one fatal accident for every 300 million journeys taken around the Capital. 

I must concede to feeling somewhat surprised, and even a little perturbed by the outward reactions of my fellow journey-makers on hearing this announcement.  I attempted to rationalise this, wondering whether perhaps the majority were otherwise engaged, tuned into their iPods, or a game of early morning Solitaire.  I thought maybe daily commuters (a category I happily don't feel I currently belong to) become 'immune' to the safety warnings such as the traditional "Mind the Gap" announcements and regular reminders to stand behind the yellow lines. 

I am relieved to discover having conducted some vague research into the fact, that very few accidents are caused by overcrowding on the platforms, which are apparently monitored, to avoid overcrowded.  (I wonder what the TfL definition of overcrowded looks like, as breathing space at Vauxhall waiting for the Victoria Line Northbound was at a premium this morning).

That said, most fatalities on the network are suicides.  Delays resulting from a person jumping or falling in front of a train as it pulls into a station are announced as an "unfortunate delay", "passenger action", "customer incident" or "a person under a train".  Staff refer to the scenario as "one under".

London Underground has a team of specially trained professionals, to support personnel including drivers who have experience post-traumatic stress, resulting from someone jumping under their train.  I wonder who helps those members of the public who witness such events, or those who are left behind?

Monday, 23 May 2011

Never Alone

"You cannot belong to anyone else, until you belong to yourself."  Pearl Bailey

I have been thinking a lot about identity recently, and about how this not-so-small issue so frequently underlies our distress and may lead to the struggles which result in addictive or compulsive behaviours.  When I first started formally considering social psychology, I remember being asked to consider our need to belong which was familiar to me having spent some time wondering about this from a rather detached philosophical position. 

Fiske (2004) unequivocally emphasised our need to belong, stating that 'Belongingness' is the human emotional need to be an accepted member of a group.  Whether it is family, friends, co-workers, or a sports team, humans have an inherent desire to belong and be an important part of something greater than themselves.  The motive to belong is the need for "strong, stable relationships with other people."  This implies a relationship that is greater than simple acquaintance or familiarity. The need to belong is the need to give and receive affection from others.

"To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment."  Ralph Waldo Emerson

As humans, we are deeply and inherently social creatures.  We desire to live, love and work with others whom we know and who know us. And so did our ancestors, whose membership to small groups helped protect them from the weather and from predators. Belonging to a group gave them- and gives us- a chance to thrive.

Abraham Maslow (1970) suggested that the need to belong was a major source of human motivation.  He thought that it was one of five basic needs, along with physiological, safety, self esteem and self actualisation.  These needs are arranged on a hierarchy and must be satisfied in order. After physiological and safety needs are met an individual can then work on meeting the need to belong and be loved. If the first two needs are not met, then an individual cannot completely love someone else.

Those who struggle to belong, often become casualties of Maslow's hierarchy and of life more generally.  Not-belonging can result in failure to thrive, and prompt withdrawal or rebellion.  For our ancestors, being excluded or becoming an outcast would have been disastrous.  Rejection from the group and lacking the benefits that the group offered would have meant death.  From an evolutionary standpoint, our survival has depended on the ability to prevent rejection, or to reclaim membership to the group once rejected.  This is, in a way, still the case.  Evolution has instilled in us a powerful desire to be part of a group of people we can know and whom can know us, and while our world has changed, and while our social ties to others have become less personal and more complex, social connection (and our fear of losing it) continues to be crucial to the quality (and in some cases, even quantity) of our lives.

"Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind."  Dr. Seuss

The 12 Steps were founded upon an implicit understanding of the power of a group and have always welcomed those of us who may have struggled to find or maintain a sense of belonging elsewhere.  We may have searched in the wrong places, or been ousted from those quarters we once felt at home in.  Being 'friends with Bill' means being part of a very big, and growing club whose membership is unconditional and lifelong. 

Fiske, S.T. (2004). Social Beings: A core motives approach to social psychology. United States of America: Wiley.

Maslow, A. (1970). Motivation and personality (2nd ed.). New York: Harper & Row; reprinted by permission of Harper Collins Publishers.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

The agony of Missing

Having something taken from your possession is a horrible feeling.  The powerlessness and lack of control that it evokes are truly devastating.  I experienced this recently when I was burgled, and my bicycle stolen from my hallway.  I loved that bike.  I had only had it a few months and never thought to lock it whilst it was hanging on its rack in the hall. 

Having lost a bike, and experienced the volcano of emotions in the wake of the realisation that I may never see it again, I am still a long way off being able to truly appreciate what it is that the friends and families who are left behind when someone disappears go through.

I have recently spent quite a bit of time considering these experiences, and the implications of them for those who lose someone they care about.  My loss whilst sad, and confusing is incomparable to the existential dilemma faced by anyone who has experienced the issue of missing.  Having no clue where their loved one is, or what might have happened to them is mind-boggling, and inspires a wide range of responses which are not only highly individual, but variable over time reflecting circumstance.

Every year in the UK alone over 200,000 are reported missing.  Whilst most are resolved relatively quickly, other disappearances continue for prolonged periods, leaving family members to cope with the pain of not knowing where their loved one is or what has happened to them.

Missing People is due to Pilot a novel therapeutic intervention for which I am the Clinical Lead.  I have been thinking a lot about the relevance and utility of mindfulness based approaches for this unique population, in order to promote a better quality of life for those living 'in limbo'. 

It seems to me that those living with so many unknowns might well find comfort in the tools mindfulness offers while benefitting from meeting together in a group setting, to share experience, strength and hope. 

Monday, 16 May 2011

Staying well in the water

I have known for a long time that swimming is good for me, but it was not until recently that I began to think about how, exactly, it helps.

Swimming is undoubtedly a great form of exercise with benefits for the cardio vascular system, respiratory system and and the nervous system.  The way in which swimming works is partly connected to the fact that, whilst in water, we can move every part of our body.  The nervous system calms down in a way it is unlikely to do much when not immersed as our sense organs and nervous system begin to operate in a more integrated way.  We literally bring our internals into 'sync' and are thus better able to 'flow'.

People often talk about feeling a “calming down” in the shower, or after a swim - this is due to our nervous system resting, and getting some much needed time out.  There are several states that have been observed in regular swimmers, thought to be pursuant to the “calming down” feeling after the swimming including increased self-confidence, a lessening of fears or anxiety and enhanced ability to focus on tasks.  Perhaps more of us should be swimming during our lunchbreaks?

Sunday, 15 May 2011

In every end a new beginning?

"Change is inevitable.  Except from a vending machine."  (Robert C. Gallagher)

Endings are sometimes more important than beginnings.  Endings may also be beginnings in disguise in the unending cycle that is life.  Many of us struggle with endings.  We may have had negative experiences, traumatic endings.  Abrupt, unforeseen, unexpected and unwanted endings.  Endings may prompt an escape reflex.  Some of us have a history in which endings have been so appalling that it might seem easier to run, avoid or sabotage in order to avoid a formal, acknowledged, honoured ending.

The end of therapy presents an enormous challenge.  It can often be around for a long time before it actually occurs, and the process, if allowed to unfold, can be profound and significant.  Within it lies the potential for a reparative experience; something new and different, but there is a risk to be taken.

Within my approach around endings is a very tangible focus characterised by action.  I endeavour to achieve this with my clients as a product of various developments as a result of our work together which might be summarised as self acceptance, momentum towards change and self confidence.  These are not arrived at simply or by accident - they are the products of a sustained and productive relationship in which a client realises their goals and as a result of the psychological adjustments along the way, a client may be able to take meaningful and self directed action looking forward.

With each therapeutic ending, unexpected or planned, I find myself taking stock as to how I have been affected by the experience of working with an individual, and what I am learning from my clients.  With these probing questions in mind, I strive to remain fully present with each encounter.

I like to honour endings.  It feels important to acknowledge and celebrate a shared journey.  It needn't take the form of anything grand, but there is dignity in two human beings recognising what it is that they have co-created.  I wish my clients well, as they move into the next chapter of their lives and I into mine.  Sometimes our paths cross, but often I will never know what happened next... 

Perhaps "life is not so much about beginnings and endings but muddling through the middle..."   (Anna Quindlen)

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

It's all in the Balance

“To acquire balance means to achieve that happy medium between the minimum and the maximum that represents your optimum.  The minimum is the least you can get by with.  The maximum is the most you're capable of.  The optimum is the amount or degree of anything that is most favorable toward the ends you desire.”  Nido Qubein, PhD.

Over the past few days I have spent time considering the importance of achieving a balance between nourishing and depleting activities.  At a surface level this concept looks simple - a straightforward equation of energy.  Thinking in some more depth however, it strikes me as at the heart of recovery and the promotion of wellbeing more generally. 

How is it that we fill our daily lives?  What is it that happens between when we wake, and return to sleep at night?  What we actually do with our time, from moment to moment, hour to hour, from one year to the next can very powerfully influence our physical and psychological health and wellbeing and our ability to deal with stress, difficult emotions and troublesome experiences.

When was the last time that you considered how it is that you spend your time? 

It might be useful to take inventory, and review your schedule to ask yourself:  of the things you do, what nourishes you?  What lifts your mood, energises you, makes you feel calm and centred?  What increases your sense of being alive and present, rather than merely existing?

Of the things you do, what depletes you?  What pulls you down, drains your energy, or makes you feel tense and fragmented?  What decreases your sense of being alive and present, what makes you feel you are merely existing, or worse?

...The serenity to accept the things we cannot change
The courage to change the things we can
The wisdom to know the difference...

Accepting that there are a great many things in life we have no power to change, there are many things that are within are control and personal responsibility in this respect is of vital significance.  Response-ability:  the ability to respond wisely to what we know to be true.  Considering the questions above, what is it we can to do increase the time and effort devoted to nourishing activities and aspects of our lives, and decrease the time and energy given to things in our lives that deplete us? 

If it is not possible to shift the balance on a practical level in this way, perhaps it is possible to alter our approach to these activities - what is it that we bring to our day to day experience that might add or detract thereto?  Can we change our attitude through our approach and thereby have a rather different experience?  Can we approach the seemingly familiar, or even mundane, with a fresh curiosity and act 'as if' rather than judging them or wishing they weren't there. 

Very few of us leap out of of bed to greet our day with gratitude every morning.  There are, inevitably, aspects of our experience we would wish away, but perhaps there is room for a subtle shift - in accepting what is, and bringing present moment awareness to them, as opposed to avoidance and aversion, perhaps we are better able to regulate our moods, and our responses to them.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

The perils of living only in the now?

"Everybody, sooner or later, must sit down to a banquet of consequences."  Robert Louis Stevenson

I was thinking today about individuals' relationship to instant gratification and the idea of having what we want right now, in spite of known and likely consequences. 


I am interested in a possible link between those children for whom visiting the dentist to discover that they need yet another filling is commonplace and adults who later develop addictive behaviours. 

I wonder whether a child's dental care might be an accurate predictor of their later relationship to themselves, and their bodies, as sites of abuse - prioritising what they want, in the face of acknowledged damage they are likely to inflict on themselves as a result.

Sunny: Inside and Out?

"People don't notice whether it's winter or summer when they're happy." 
Anton Chekhov

I've noticed a correlation between sunshine and attendance.  As the sun comes out, clients are less likely to show for appointments.  Throw in a few (well, more than a few) Bank Holidays, and my diary starts to look more than a little confused.  I find myself sitting alone, facing an empty chair, wondering about what might have been in the session which doesn't happen, and reflecting on the possible meanings behind my client's absence.  The impact of the sunshine on individuals' mood is well documented, and presenting for therapy might well seem like an unwelcome chore.  

Coming in to the therapy room perhaps feels inconvenient, or worse still it could represent a threat, as though it might negatively effect the lightened frame of mind and sunny disposition from which everything suddenly seems better, and life just that little bit easier.  Sunshine, particularly when sustained over a few days, has a dramatic effect on the collective mood - people smile, and might even acknowledge complete strangers, people dress differently, and their demeanour seems to become lighter.  I'm not suggesting that people have been seen skipping around the streets of London, but the recent bout of holidays, and celebrations of some very public nuptials have had a contagious impact.  What might I, as a therapist, represent in my consistency come rain or shine?  What does the therapy room hold as seasons change? 

"Be intent upon the perfection of the present day."  William Law (1686-1761)

I have come to understand that it can feel difficult coming to therapy when the sun's out, and people are smiling - not just for those who would rather be basking in the sunshine, but also for those who feel they 'should' be feeling better than they are, when the grip of depression won't shift, whatever the weather.  For many, there is a sense of injustice that their inner world and reality does not reflect the hope of Spring and promise of Summer. 

Perhaps the therapy room is one of the few places left where we are unlikely to spend great amounts of time (if any) remarking on the weather, and therein lies the safety.  The British have a reputation for being obsessed by the weather, which can (and frequently does) dominate our thoughts and interactions.  Culturally, we're not nearly as comfortable consulting professionals about issues relating to our mental health and wellbeing.  We've come a long way, but there's still a fair way to go. 

"No matter how long the winter, spring is sure to follow."  Proverb

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Swimming Lessons: applicable to Life?

"If you want to learn to swim jump into the water.  On dry land no frame of mind is ever going to help you."  Bruce Lee (Actor, Martial Arts Instructor and Philosopher 1940-73)

As a keen swimmer I recently decided to have a lesson.  It's been some time since I focused on my technique, and habits that are not necessarily helpful tend to develop if left unattended for a while.  I am interested in how we learn, and how our approach to learning changes as we grow.  Children have less ingrained ways of thinking and doing, and there is considerably less to un-learn, by virtue of the fact that I have had less time on the planet.  As an adult, and someone who has remained close to education throughout my life, I enjoy surrounding myself with individuals who boast more experience than I do, and acknowledging that I am wise enough to know that I am not very wise.

The same is equally true in the pool.  My swimming technique, whilst strong, is largely self taught.  Some things we have to learn as we go along, but it can be enormously helpful to stop a while and learn from someone who seems to be moving through life with less effort and more ease.  The Shaw Swimming Method adopts principles from Alexander Technique and applies them in the water.  Having grown more familiar with the approach, its utility seems to be broader than swimming, and could in fact contain within it valuable lessons for life, particularly for those of us in recovery.

The first principle concerns alignment, and positioning in the water.  The Alexander Technique focuses on head, back and neck alignment, to enhance natural positioning and improve posture easing tension and preventing associated problems.  Our bodies are, in fact, very buoyant but the way in which we are apt to strive in the water causes us to work against this natural fact and our effort results in a battle against gravity, and an impeded position which causes us to have to work harder.  This may well resonate in life more generally, where we exert a lot of energy unwisely and tire ourselves in the process.  Acceptance and tolerance are key to wellbeing, as they comprise working with what is, rather than trying to change things we have no control over. 

"Being your best is not so much about overcoming the barriers other people place in front of you as it is about overcoming the barriers we place in front of ourselves. It has nothing to do with how many times you win or lose. It has no relation to where you finish in a race or whether you break world records. But it does have everything to do with having the vision to dream, the courage to recover from adversity and the determination never to be shifted from your goals."  Kieren Perkins (Australian swimmer Olympic medal winner, 1500m freestyle 1992, 1996 and 2000)

Shaw refers to 'Smart Swimming' when he describes the balance of activity and rest in each of the 4 swimming strokes.  To swim 'smart' is to make the best possible use out of any propulsive movement, and momentum, which will allow our bodies sufficient rest and thereby improve stamina and endurance.  Less haste, and more speed.  By ensuring that we are fully present in any activity we undertake, we are more likely to engage in a manner that is mindful or awake and better able to notice what it is that we are actually doing.  In this way, we become less likely to waste effort, as we take things methodically, and allow our bodies to feel what it is that we need to feel, in order to produce 'muscle memory'.  Repeating things over and over, without thinking, is likely to have the opposite effect as we become increasingly disconnected from our physical experience, and and far more vulnerable to being side-tracked by our intrusive and overactive minds.

"The water is your friend.  You don't have to fight with water, just share the same spirit as the water, and it will help you move."  Aleksandr Popov (Russian biathlete)

Swimming has for me been a great way to make a friend of my breath.  Our breath is constant and largely unconscious and all too often taken for granted.  We may neglect our breath and just as when you're in the pool, this leads to problems, the same is true anywhere else.  In swimming, perfecting the art of breathing efficiently is key as it encompasses much important technique.  Intention rather than tension.  Again, a paradox operates in that by slowing things down, you become able to move more quickly, and by focusing more closely, you develop a system which is better attuned to your body, enabling you to sustain it and even enjoy it.  I would dare to suggest that this is definitely applicable to recovery, where the basics need to be closely attended to, in order to provide strong foundations upon which later learnings may be built.  This happened very naturally during the lesson, where the time came for us to leave the comfort of theory and put the exercises practised first on dry land into action.  Just as the first quotation reminds us, there is a big distinction between talking the talk from walking the walk.  Recovery is, after all, the bridge to normal living.

Putting aside things we have previously learnt (often out of adaptive necessity), and approaching something familiar with an open mind and childlike curiosity is a very real challenge but one that for me continues to pay dividends.  Learning as part of a group is particularly rewarding, as shared goals enhance support and growth.  Perhaps the biggest challenge is not the task at hand, but adopting a compassionate approach to ourselves in order to ensure that we don't drive the passion out of the activity and thereby lose its joy.