Thursday, 30 June 2011

Out to lunch: Minds meeting other Minds

Earlier this week I was reminded of the power of minds meeting.

I believe very strongly, that there is something enormously powerful about people sitting together in a room.  Much of my week tends to be spent, sitting with one or more other people, talking, and hopefully thinking together.  There is something magical that can happen when minds meet other minds.  Regardless of the number, the sum is somehow greater than its parts.

I had prepared for the agenda, but could not have anticipated what the meeting would bring.  The energy and dynamism had little to do with the caffeine and sugar which were available on the boardroom table between us.  A group of individuals, brought together by a common purpose, and a shared aspiration, breathes potential.

And that's what happened.  Abstract concepts may be suddenly brought alive and into reality.  Individual ideas can become shared perceptions.  Differing opinions can be worked through, and explored.  Different conclusions may be drawn, but the process is itself useful. 

I get a lot from working around other people.  At times, it's one of the things I miss most about working in an office, as part of a team.  At other times that very thing is something I don't miss at all.  But on Tuesday I was reminded of the power of what can happen when people 'show up' and engage in this profoundly and uniquely human manner.  No other species uses its reason to allow our present judgments to be informed by past experience, and nothing else has the power to communicate in the ways we do.

Sometimes it's what doesn't go in the PowerPoint that makes the difference.  The things that can't be measured. 

Social engagement and functioning have interested and excited me for some time.  This interest led me to study classical civilisations, and consider how political and philosophical ideas informed societal interaction. 

Aristotle described humans as political animals, from which I infer that we are social beings.  We can thrive when we are around others, and are pursuing goals alongside our kin.  In this way, social interaction is a cornerstone of human life, yet how this happens remains somewhat mysterious.  The neural mechanisms underlying social cognition are still poorly understood.

Recently, research that integrates approaches from neuroscience and social psychology has begun to shed light on these processes, and converging evidence from neuroimaging studies suggests a unique role for
the medial frontal cortex which is capable of meta-cognitive representations which allow us to have 'thoughts about thoughts'. 

It is quite possible that this 'thinking about thinking' is what facilitates much social cognition:  allowing us to reflect values that other people attach to actions and outcomes, and also to reflect on what other people think about us.


Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Principles Above Personalities?

"Civilisation is the progress toward a society of privacy.  Civilisation is the process of setting man free from men." 
Ayn Rand (Russian born American writer 1905-82)

A recent meeting with a mother of 3 children whose circumstances have propelled her and her family into the public consciousness prompted me to consider anonymity and our relationship with it.

Anonymity, Privacy and Confidentiality are all themes I necessarily encounter on a regular basis in the course of my work, and yet somehow, they were brought to life more vividly than usual, standing in a busy mainline railway station on a weekday morning meeting a woman whose journey has clearly touched many more hearts than mine.

During the course of a 90 minute meeting, we were interrupted several times, and throughout the course of our discussions I was conscious of a sense of being somehow more visible than usual.  My feeling conspicuous grew and left an impression that has remained with me - what do we take for granted, in terms of our anonymity, and what compromises it?

It struck me that she, whilst certainly not claiming celebrity status, has achieved something of that.  She is recognisable by many who, having never met her, feel she is familiar to them.  This is capable of producing a confusing scenario - to feel 'known' without ever having been introduced is a peculiar dynamic as the line between public and private becomes blurred.

"The problem with losing your anonymity is that you can never go back." 
Marla Maples - American actress

While some are born into greatness, others achieve it, whilst some have it thrust upon them, perhaps the same is true of celebrity.  Is it something of a one way street, which leads to a cul de sac from which its difficult to escape?

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Out of its Depth?

Sitting in a crowded carriage during rush hour on the Northern Line recently, I discovered that alongside my fellow passengers I was in the company of a fly.  Unusual and unexpected.  I'm not sure I've seen any on the tube before and it caused me to think about how it would have found its way down through the halls and tunnels and in through one of the doors, or inbetween-carriage windows. 

I thought of how that single solitary fly represented a phenomenon most of us can relate to:  finding oneself to be in an unfamiliar and possibly uncomfortable environment.  For the fly, it struck me that the underground would comprise an incredibly hostile and alien landscape from which it might not possess the resources to escape.  In any case, chances are, it would have been transported to a quite different destination to its point of departure.

Thoughts led to thoughts, and before I knew it, I was faced with a great many questions about flies' socialisation...  Would it matter to this fly, that he found himself in High Barnet, having started in Morden? 

How did a fly come to be on the black line in the first place?  Of the 50 stations on the Northern line, 36 are underground, so there is a distinct possibility the fly came aboard at one of the overground stations.

More thoughts...  Do flies sleep?  Do we ever see 'baby' sized flies?  Why not? 

'Buzzing Around'

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Yoga and Recovery: Poised Parallels

I enjoy practising yoga and have attended classes taught by teachers with different approaches.  A little like therapy, sometimes it takes a while to find a 'fit' and that fit can alter over time, and with changes in our circumstances.

My current teacher encourages and supports me to challenge myself, and regularly introduces balance postures into our practice.  I find these poses give me a great opportunity to put recovery principles into practice, and was reminded of this whilst experimenting with the 'crow' recently...


"Poise and power are inseparably associated.  The calm and balanced mind is the strong and great mind; the hurried and agitated mind is the weak one."
Wallace D. Wattles (1860-1911, American author)

The 'secret' is in the foundations.  Strong foundations predict better outcomes.  This is as true in recovery as it is on a yoga mat:

Finding the 'right' yoga class is essential.  I know I get more from my practice when I feel safe.  When I don't feel rushed, and am able to incline my attention towards my practice. 

Yoga is founded upon the breath, and my teacher often reminds me that the breath should never be compromised.  Yoga is not about striving to achieve, or contorting one's body beyond that which is comfortable.  Yoga should embody compassion and the same is true in recovery.

I make time to practice.  This way I derive maximum benefits from it.  I like to acknowledge that I am taking time to practice, and open and close my practice with a mini-ritual; offering my practice 'up' I remind myself of the truly small space I occupy in the larger landscape of the bigger picture.  Recovery is, after all, freedom from self. 

Having learnt the basics from an Iyengar teacher, I have come to realise how important it is to mindfully place myself correctly in a pose, bringing awareness to the points of the body being focused upon.

To achieve a balance posture, you need to make a decision.  It involves a challenge, and this requires a commitment.  Trusting one's body, and the connection to the earth is essential. 

Once in a posture, the breath provides the energetic focus, which enables us to hold, maintain and develop.  Inhaling and exhaling.  Smooth, steady, relaxed breath. 

Just as in recovery, commitment is a prerequisite.  Progress, rather than perfection is aimed for, and achieved through regular practice without fear of imperfection as this is how we grow, and develop. 

We need to lose our balance, occasionally and just enough to remind us what our foundations feel like, and how vital it is that we attend to these, rather than our appearance. 

"The key to keeping our balance is to know when we've lost it." - Unknown

Yoga teaches us to position our heads, and our hearts and to focus on these, not separately, but in unison, bonded through the breath.  We are taught to look up, and ahead, rather than down and behind.  We accept our limitations gracefully, with dedication to build upon these, and develop our strengths.

Serenity is to be enjoyed, not simply at the end of a practice during the time dedicated to relaxation and restoration, but throughout one's practice, moment to moment. 

The 'Crow' also known as the Bakasana, or the Kakasana is an arm balance which strengthens the shoulders, arms and wrists.  It is tenth in the sequence of twelve basic postures of hatha yoga. 

It can be practised by following these (deceptively simple sounding) steps:

Step 1 - Squat to Start
To prepare yourself for the Crow, squat with your feet and knees wide apart.
Position your arms between your knees, with your hands directly under your shoulders, then put your hands flat on the floor in front of you.
Stretch your fingers wide and turn your hands inward slightly

Step 2 - Knees to Arms
Bend your elbows, and turn them outward.
Rest your knees against your upper arms.
Next, rock forward until you feel your weight on your wrists.
Stay in this position if you are unable to proceed further.
This exercise is still useful even if you stop at this point, as your wrists support your weight and your forearm muscles are being stretched.

Step 3 - Raise Your Feet
Slowly raise each foot, then balance on your hands for at least 10 seconds.
Aim to increase your time in the pose to 30 seconds; with practice you will be able to hold the position for up to a minute.
To come out, lower your feet to the ground, sit up, and shake out your wrists.
If and when you are strong enough, repeat the Crow twice.

Monday, 20 June 2011

'Healer' heal thyself

In no particular order:  Sore throat.  Interrupted sleep.  Headache.  Snuffle. 

More tissues than usual were used by clients this week.  Not very many tears were shed, which usually means there are a few bugs doing the rounds.  Perhaps I caught it whilst at work.  Perhaps not.  Sometimes causes are less important than cures, or at least management.

"Sickness shows us what we are" - Latin proverb

Early night.  Rest.  Echinacea.  Plentiful fluids.  Vitamin C and Zinc.

I have learnt to respect my body enough to listen to the early warning signs, and take heed.  Denial only makes matters worse. 

Sometimes we need reminding to slow down, and occasionally we are required to stop.  A bit like driving; there are more regular 'Give Way' signs than there are 'Stop'.  Noticing our own internal speed limit is important, for the penalties for exceeding them can be high. 

Saturday, 18 June 2011

New York sounds heard in London

Seeing Alicia Keys perform live at the Royal Albert Hall was definitely a highlight of my week.

I could hardly believe it when she said her tour marked the 10th anniversary of the release of her debut album.  10 years, really?  She's sold 12 million copies of Songs in A Minor since then and one of those was mine.

Monday night's show was well worth the wait and the majestic surroundings of the Albert Hall provided the perfect setting for this diva whose work I have always admired and continue to enjoy.  Sitting at beautiful grand piano whose lid remained closed, her performance did not disappoint.  Surrounded by tall candleabras, Alicia was alone on stage, but needed no backing vocals.  We were captivated.  She performed for more than 90 minutes, her contralto voice throughout was simply awesome.

Announcing that she was in a "London state of mind", the whole house leapt to their feet for a tremendously emotional and hugely celebratory Empire State of Mind (Part II) - a fittingly supreme ending to an amazing concert.

This Grammy award-winning artist is a true performer and it was privilege to attend her show.  Her talent is blinding, and her energy infectious.  Above all, her lyrics communicate a strong sense of humility.  This is a young woman whose feet are still firmly on the ground.  She's proud of where she's come from. 

"If I want to be alone, some place I can write, I can read, I can pray, I can cry, I can do whatever I want - I go to the bathroom." - Alicia Keys

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Mindful Tea

"There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea." 
Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady

Taking time to 'take tea' with a dear friend recently was a real treat...

I drink very little caffeine, but there is nothing like a decent cuppa, particularly when enjoyed from a beautiful cup (with matching saucer).

We took our time to savour the sandwiches and, by so doing, had a far richer experience:  The smell was more inviting.  The taste, I would suggest, was more intense, as flavours and textures were given fuller awareness.  Delicate sandwiches (without crusts) proved delicious.  Bite sized was just-right sized.  The scones melted in our mouths, because we let them. 

"If you are cold, tea will warm you.  If you are too heated, it will cool you.  If you are depressed, it will cheer you.  If you are excited, it will calm you."
Gladstone, 1865

Watching movies with the same friend from across the pond, my attention was drawn to the magic powers attributed to tea in English films.  Tea is a source of comfort, and of calm.  Tea is used remedially to cure all ills - at times of shock, loss, and heartache. 

Perhaps Bernard-Paul Heroux spoke sense when he said:

"There is no trouble so great or grave that cannot be much diminished by a nice cup of tea."

Afternoon tea is a ritual for which the British are reknown.  Our tea was magical. 

"Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves - slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future." 
Thich Nat Hahn

Don't Stop and Stare

Walking down a busy London high street yesterday I noticed a small crowd forming beside a pedestrian crossing that didn't appear to move when the lights changed and the traffic gave way.  A sad scene was revealed, a lady was lying motionless on the pavement, surrounded by an army of onlookers.  Strangers behaving strangely, I thought. 

What is it about an accident that causes us to stop and stare?  What is that compulsion we feel, to find out what's happened, whilst contributing nothing to what might happen next? 

In America, the term 'rubbernecking' has been coined to describe motorists who slow down as they pass the scene of a recent road traffic accident to observe its aftermath. 

It is part of human nature to become curious at the sight of something extreme or unusual, which explains some aspects of rubbernecking.  Tourists viewing the sites of a large city for the first time often spend most of their time rubbernecking, because they are completely overwhelmed by the new and unusual sights around them.  But need we gawk with morbid curiosity at the scene of an accident, helping no one and possibly causing a nuisance by our untimely and ultimately narcissistic presence?  Need we indulge our own meanderings about mortality whilst depriving potentially another of their dignity?  Are there more respectful ways in which we might witness another's experience?

Yesterday, on my way out to an engagement I had been looking forward to all day, I was prompted to think of that woman, whom I have never met and am unlikely to encounter again, and to wonder what did happen to her.  I hope an ambulance arrived on the scene quickly, to relieve the one individual who had actively come to her assistance and whom I saw administering first aid. 

Somebody's daughter, maybe someone's sister, wife, partner or mother.  Each of my thoughts interesting and valid, prompting consideration of our essential vulnerability and fragility, but better engaged with having crossed the road and continued minding my own business. 

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Nothing but the Truth

I wonder whether the truth is a single entity, whereas the number of realities may be infinite...?
Conflict can ensue when one person seeks to assert their reality over another’s.  Disagreement is common, as to versions of the ‘truth’.  There is something comforting to find a common ‘truth’, but perhaps great beauty lies in the complexity of reality. 
Recovery is often associated with finding our ‘truth’ and becoming comfortable with our ‘true self’ – so deceptively simple sounding.  Uncovering who we might be, or might like to be represents a challenging and often frightening prospect: after all, it is often this very person we have avoided for so long, and sought to escape in the most radical ways possible.  I like to think more in terms of aspiring towards our highest selves and our limitless potential.  It implies a less finite, gradual and ongoing process of continual growth, as we emerge, like the lotus flower out of muddy waters. 

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Stressed Out? Time to Chill Out

Sometimes it takes a moment out of the frenzied, chatter of our minds, to realise that we are not, in fact, doing as well as we might be.
Stress is a common predictor of relapse.  We carry stress in our bodies, but tend to filter out the experience through our powerful minds, that tell us we’re doing fine.  Which we are.  Until we’re not. 

Recently, taking a break away from my usual surroundings, and ordinary routine which, whilst varied is more or less predictable and involves a lot of rushing around the urban landscape, proved to be a timely reminder of how my body, just like my car, requires maintenance. 
Becoming better attuned to our bodies is an important component of recovery:  for this is where the warning signals first occur.  It varies between individuals, and different people may have different ‘stress signatures’ but these could include lethargy, headaches, digestive troubles, sleeping too much or too little. 
All too often we procrastinate and put off taking that all-important break, kidding ourselves that balance is a luxury.  Balance is essential, and does not come naturally.  We need to learn to respect and listen to our bodies, to befriend the early warning signs and respond to these.  Without our health we stand far less chance of achieving the goals we are so closely focused on attaining.
Depression has been described as ‘the common cold of psychopathology’.  Looked at from this angle, it might be seen in a more positive light – as something capable of serving us when we aren’t necessarily able to do so for ourselves:  depression might be nature’s way of slowing us down and forcing us to take much-needed rest.  An extreme remedy no doubt, but an effective one nonetheless.  I regularly encounter individuals in the grips with a depression – perhaps the battle might cease more quickly if we are able to acknowledge the different messages our moods convey. 

So near and yet SO far...

Driving around, trying to listen to my intuition in a foreign country, in an unfamiliar car, on the wrong side of the road, without a comprehensive map and no command of the language raised a few concerns when we had been searching the same stretch of road for what seemed like a while.
Something inside told me that we were closer than we thought, and we must have passed the same group of men working on the short stretch of road 3 times in one direction, and twice travelling in the other.  They had no idea where we were bound, what we were looking for, and did not speak English.
We attempted to approach from the highway from either direction, to no avail.  The directions didn’t speak to us, and we were left with little more than our instincts, which by this time, were pretty drained.

Our spirits were lifted having identified the right junction, the right road but which direction.  My handwritten notes, enthusiastically scribbled when it all seemed so straightforward as I was taken through them, over the phone, whilst still in the safe surroundings of the UK, no longer seemed worth the scrap of paper on which they were scrawled, the map seemed laughable and a comfortable welcome a long way off yet. 
We had no alternative but to continue.  Two heads better than one, four eyes better than two, and we had at least tuned in to a half decent radio station which was providing familiar tunes when they were most needed.

Turning back yet again, trying to bring fresh eyes to the now frustratingly recognisable scenery, and crossing the river whose name we will never forget, I became aware of a sign.  A small, handwritten sign, at about knee height, with the all important initials of the resort we were so desperate to discover...  We had driven so close to this over an hour ago, but had turned around believing ourselves to have made a wrong turn. 

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Bored of feeling Bored?

I have been thinking about boredom.  In the therapy room, boredom is usually anything but boring.  I find it fascinating, and yet I have struggled to make much sense of this overused word which crops up from time to time, and whose significance is easy to underestimate, or miss.

Psychoanalytical literature has numerous scattered references to an analyst's experience of boredom, highlighting this widespread phenomenon and suggesting that the experience of boredom in analysis may be a reaction to an encounter with a hidden, possibly encapsulated part of the psyche, a bidimensional area of experience in which mental activity has been suspended, and where experience remains meaningless.

Intriguing a proposition as this might be, I wonder whether boredom might also constitute an experiential expression of despair, a re-living of primitive object relations with an emotionally non-existent primary object.  Through bringing the emptiness and desolation into analysis, the individual makes room for the empty, blunt, dead inner object which resides within her, and that needs to be integrated into the psyche.  This inner object is a vital part of the client's inner world, part of her history, and can neither be erased nor filled in order to eradicate the emptiness.

I often find myself working hard to remain with the 'boredom' despite clients' endeavours to escape it.  I remain curious as to their constructions of this mystical domain.

Anyway, what's wrong with boredom?  In a world in which we are so rarely encouraged to slow down, and pause a-moment, perhaps the therapy room is the last place in which this dwelling can take place? 

“If you think of boredom as the prelude to creativity, and loneliness as the prelude to engagement of the imagination, then they are good things.  They are doorways to something better, as opposed to something to be abhorred and eradicated immediately.” 
Dr. Edward Hallowell, psychiatrist and author of the book 'CrazyBusy'.

Boredom, is perhaps what we seek to avoid, for the pain it might entail.  “Dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake,” Proust wrote. “And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory ... I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal.”  A new way to conceive of so-called 'comfort eating' perhaps...

When we fill the silence and the moments-in-between, do we lose more than we gain?  What if being human, means taking time to think?  Perhaps, steeping in uninterrupted boredom may be the first step toward feeling connected...

It “may take a little bit of tolerance of an initial feeling of boredom, to discover a comfort level with not being linked in and engaged and stimulated every second.  There’s a level of knowing yourself, of coming back to baseline, and knowing who you truly are.” 
Jerome C. Wakefield, a professor of social work at New York University and co-author of 'The Loss of Sadness'.