Saturday, 31 December 2011

Lost in Translation...? Hardly

They say a change is as good as a rest.  Travelling for nearly 20 hours across continents necessitated a serious rest.  Not being a seasoned long haul traveller, the flight (or more accurately flights) knocked me for six and my body demanded some serious respite on arrival.  Having overcome the jetlag, my body clock adjusted and has acclimatised to the altogether novel environment. 

Hong Kong is something else.  I have never seen anything like the cityscape here which truly reaches for the stars and scrapes the sky.  The buildings stand proud, and the city as a whole commands subtle but reverent respect.  The energy is vibrant and optimistic, entrepreneurialism is the first language.  Service comes with a smile, and very often a giggle.  I have never before encountered such pride adjacent to genuine humility.  The product is true hospitality which is itself perhaps the real culture shock.  


Friday, 23 December 2011

Taking time to take stock

As the end of the year approaches there is perhaps time for reflection and contemplation.  I'm no navel gazer, for the sake of it, but find much merit in taking stock of the year that's been, in order to appraise and inventory hurdles encountered, obstacles overcome, projects embarked upon and, hopefully, completed.  Our achievements are numerous, in each and every day, if only we stop to notice them.  Week on week we progress, and grow.  Sometimes we need others to reflect this to us, but a quick flick through an appointments diary can reveal some startling stats - where we've been, what we've accomplished, the people we've spent time with whose presence in our lives has added meaning. 

"Contemplation seems to be about the only luxury that costs nothing."  Dodie Smith

"Few people even scratch the surface, much less exhaust the contemplation of their own experience."  Randolph Bourne

With 2012 just around the corner, who would you like to be next year?  What is it that you want to take forward, and continue in the months ahead?  What would you like to develop?  What are you looking to change?  With the holidays looming there may an opportunity to afford ourselves some time and space to consider how we might go about realising our ambitions, and implementing those new year's resolutions.  Good intentions are admirable, but progress depends upon action: what support might you need?  Where will you get that? 

Making commitments imply taking responsibility, and becoming accountable.  Sometimes we need to articulate our dreams, in order to bring them into being.  Who might you share yours with?

“Turning inwards is not a turning at all. Going inwards is not a going at all.  All journeys are outward journeys, there is no inward journey.  How can you journey inwards?  You are already there, there is no point in going.  When going stops, journeying disappears; when desiring is no more clouding your mind, you are in.  This is called turning in.  But it is not a turning at all, it is simply not going out.” Osho

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Festive Overload? Catch your Breath

At this time of year, it can feel hard to find time to breathe, let alone commit to a meditation practice.  At times of stress, we are most in need of what we find it hardest to give ourselves: a break.  Time out is more than a magazine and should appear higher up most of our priority lists. 

Taking time when there feels to be none available can have a paradoxical effect: pausing just for a few moments, can enable us to see things more clearly, to feel less reactive, and better able to deal with the 12 days of Christmas when tensions tend to run high, even in the most zen of households. 

The 3 minute breathing space is a technique developed by Professor Mark Williams et al., whom together devised the 8 week program Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy.  Practised regularly, as part of one's day, it can be a lifesaver and is an accessible bite sized introduction to mindfulness for anyone interested in the benefits it can offer.
It's a simple and concise practice: the clue's in the name.  It has 3 distinct stages, through which attention is focused, gathered, and then expanded to include the body as a whole.  The more spacious sense of awareness cultivated can then be taken into the next moments, minutes and hours of one's day helping one to feel more grounded in one's experience, combatting the overwhelm that frequently accompanies the so-called 'festive' period.

Taking a breathing space...

There are 3 steps to this practice which can be done anywhere:

1. Acknowledging

Bring yourself into the present moment by deliberately adopting a dignified posture, before asking yourself:  ‘What is going on with me at the moment?’

Notice and acknowledge all of your experience, rather than denying, avoiding or suppressing the bits that you are maybe less enamoured with.

You might start by noticing the sensations in your body, especially where it is in contact with a chair or the floor.  Notice also your emotions and thoughts.  This is particularly important when there is a lot going on, or you are experiencing strong feelings.

Stay with all of these experiences for a few moments, allowing any negative feelings or experiences to be present.

2.  Gathering

Now allow what you've noticed to fade into the background, and settle your full attention onto your breathing.  It may be helpful to focus your attention on your abdomen.  Experience fully each in-breath and each out-breath as they flow in and out, one after the other. 

Noticing the breath in this way can bring you into the present, helping you connect with a state of awareness, and possibly an increased sense of stillness.

3.  Expanding awareness

Maintaining a sense of the breath, intentionally expand your awareness around the breathing to include the whole body, and the space it takes up, feeling that your whole body is breathing. Have a sense of the space around you, too.

Open up once more to whatever has been happening in your day, allowing space for all of the thoughts and feelings associated with it, but connecting these with the breath and feeling them in the body.  You might like to say to yourself, 'Let me feel whatever it is that is present, for it is already here'.

Hold in awareness the whole of your experience: sensations, thoughts and emotions.

The sequence of the Breathing Space has been likened to an hour-glass: it starts with a wide focus, which is then followed by a narrower, more specific focus which then broadens, and finishes wider still. 

Whilst we experience stress or anxiety, our whole experience is narrow and closed: we tend to focus only on whatever it is that is troubling us, and our efforts to fix it.

By pausing briefly, to do a Breathing Space we can open a door by giving our experience a different kind of attention: simply acknowledging what is happening, resisting the temptation to become caught up in it.  In this way, our awareness broadens as we include bodily sensations along with our thoughts and feelings, which helps us feel more grounded, whole, and hopeful. 


Who do you want to be today?

"I'm not feeling myself today..."

"He's not the person he was..."

"...I just want my old self back again"

Who is it that we want to feel like?  Surely we know that we can never be the same person two days running.  I believe that we change every moment, whether we like it or not:  I am not the same person I was yesterday, as I am constantly informed and influenced by my experience.  With each interaction, I change, as does whoever it is that I have come into contact with.  Tomorrow, I will be somebody else. 

This outlook seems, to me, to make sense.  It also conveys hope.  We all have boundless potential to change.  We are capable of infinite growth. 

So, what is it that we mean, when we say that we want to be the people we once were?  Do we not, more accurately, crave to return to our affective state at that point in time that was, apparently, preferable, to our current mood state? 

I often encounter people wishing to be their former selves - indicating a sense of separation, between their current experience and their history.  We are organic beings, with fluid and ever changing experiences.  We do not become someone else when we happen upon an episode of depression; we are the same people, but can fall prey to a sense of injustice that we have not remained static and that the constant ebb, flow and flux has become challenging.  We are then at risk of reminiscing to the past which is now gone, and cannot be rekindled.  We are vulnerable also, to an intense fear that we will never feel better.  We lose our grip on the belief that we will survive.  That our feelings, like microcosmic meteorological patterns, change, but that we remain constant, and can bear the landscape, whatever the weather. 

"To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring." George Santayana (1863-1952)

Are you feeling 'under the weather'?

"Weather is a great metaphor for life - sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad, and there's nothing much you can do about it but carry an umbrella." 
Terri Guillemets

"The best thing one can do when it's raining is to let it rain." 
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)

Monday, 19 December 2011

Stuck in a rut? Maybe it's time to get out of your own way...

I came across this translation from the Tao Te Ching, a collection of writings attributed to Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism and felt it resonated with something I've been considering recently concerning the consequences of the direction in which we incline our mind:

"Watch your thoughts, for they become words
Choose your words, for they become actions
Understand your actions, for they become habits
Study your habits, for they become character
Develop your character, for it becomes your destiny."

By becoming more aware of the inclination of our heart and mind, we stand a better chance of living the life we wish to.  According to the excerpt, our words are the 'daggers behind our teeth', and the patterns we are apt to fall into are themselves capable of powerfully shaping our lives. 

Therapy can be a space in which to review whether we are in fact headed in the direction we intend to, and gain understanding of the factors which have maybe meant that we have ended up on 'train tracks' leading somewhere else.  I believe we all have the ability to concentrate, and achieve a state (even momentarily) in which our neurotic and fearful self can disappear allowing our true selves to emerge, and with it insight and clarity as to what it is that we wish to do with our lives.  Have you paused to consider what it is that you most desire in 2012?

Monday, 12 December 2011

Missing but not Forgotten

I was exactly where I was meant to be this evening.  I am so glad I attended the Carol Service at St. Martin-in-the-Fields to remember those who are missing this Christmas.  It was an extremely moving service, and I felt simultaneously humbled and privileged to be in the presence of so many families who have been left behind when someone they love disappeared and who continue to live in limbo.  

There is something very special about the Church that stands on the edge of Trafalgar Square; it was where the work of Amnesty International was conceived of, and where the charity Shelter was born.  It is a haven for people from all over the world, and is a place of peaceful welcome, and tremendous inspiration.  The surroundings are both wonderfully impressive, yet somehow 'homely'.  The two choirs whose voices supported our own, were magnificent and reminded me of the power of the collective.  There was, for the precious hour of the service, a true sense of peace and calm amongst a group whose lives are, I suspect, anything but as they search tirelessly, and are left with the questions one family member so movingly articulated:  where is he..?  how is he..?  is he..?   

It is at Christmas that those missing are most missed.  Like birthdays, and the anniversary of the disappearance, families want to be with their loved ones, or at least be in contact with them.  Not knowing what has happened, for months, years, decades, cuts deep into the heart and soul, challenging even the strongest faith and deepest conviction. 

The readings by Brenda Blethyn OBE and Sir Trevor McDonald OBE, by Senior Police Officers and by the families of those who are missing brought tears to eyes, and sent shivers down spines.  They struck a chord with which anyone with a heart could, I think, resonate. 

In the presence of HRH The Duchess of Gloucester, we filled the pews, in the nave and gallery.  Plenty were standing, and together we lit candles to remember those families who will this Christmas feel bleakly incomplete.  Bleakly, but not without hope.  For unlike our candles, their hope is never extinguished.  They don't and can't know, until they do. 

In the meantime, I feel proud of the work that I am doing alongside Missing People to support the families of those who are missing, and am privileged to have had an opportunity to have conceived of the concept behind the intervention I have designed and started to implement on the Charity's behalf,  'Living Better when Living in Limbo' - a mindfulness based program for those left behind when someone disappears. 

Missing People offer a lifeline, in the form of their helpline which is staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  You can help to ensure their incredible work continues, by donating something today.

The Great Eternal Silence
Missing in the darkness,
vanished without a trace,
with only the memories and photographs,
to fill an empty place.

Frequent prayer and fervent cries,
is there anyone there?
But the only sound
was the silent eternal fanfare.

For a long time
its deafening sound
subdued by a path
through lost and found.

Laughter and sorrow,
anguish and grief,
all the moments of a life
but with no relief.

Everything and nothing
one within and between all,
gentle, loving, pervading,
the eternal silence falls.

by Aquinas T. Duffy

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Silence is Golden, or Blue perhaps?

Swimming affords me the opportunity to take a break in my day.  It opens a gap in which it is possible for me to truly abandon the conceptual mode my mind is apt to occupy.  Left unattended, my mind is full of language.  I spend much of my day speaking, and (hopefully) still more listening.  For leisure, I read and I'm rarely without my diary in which I record appointments, and a notebook and pencil - to jot ideas, map a new project, or compose yet another list.  I have no need for language of any sort in the pool, where it is therefore possible for me to switch into a perceptual mode - savouring my moment to moment experience of myself, swimming, right here, right now, length by length, breath by breath by breath...

Friday, 9 December 2011

Precious moments

There are some conversations that will stay with us forever.  Certain things said to us by certain people are hard to forget, for all the right reasons.  They happen at moments that are apt to change our lives; they shape our characters, and finetune our relationships. 

It is at these split seconds that we experience true connection: we truly feel heard, or really understood, appreciated or respected.  These vital snapshots of dialogue remind us of our humanity.  It is, after all, only through communication, that we differentiate ourselves from the rest of the animal kingdom. 

"I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I'm not sure you realise that what you heard is not what I meant." 
Robert McCloskey (1914-2003, Award winning author and illustrator of children's books)

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Just get on with it!

I find that the older I get and the longer I study (as I seem unable to leave education the two are becoming increasingly synonymous), the nearer a deadline has to be before I spring into action.  Which isn't to say that I don't spend a great deal of time thinking about the assignment at hand, or energy contemplating what it might be like to sit down and grapple with it...

It isn't all bad however, as I have discovered that procrastination is itself an art and a prompt for boundless creativity.  Whilst thinking about thinking and planning to plan, I find myself with endless ideas as to alternative pursuits that merit my attention and energy.  All of a sudden those tasks that have slipped off countless to-do lists resurface and are addressed; my correspondence is brought up to date; phone calls and emails are replied to, my admin is swum through and I manage to digest the supplements of the weekend papers. 

Enough already!  When will this eternal student finally learn?

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Notes from the Pool

I think about very little when I swim.  The clarity I experience on leaving the pool however is quite noticeable.  This afternoon is occurred to me that I swim greater distances when I don't set myself the goal of doing so. 

Whilst I still calculate how far I've swum (assisted by my nifty PoolMate that counts my laps) with nerdy interest as to my average number of strokes per length, and efficiency rate, this is a retrospective exercise.  On getting into the pool, I set aside targets, and goals, preferring instead to see how I'm feeling, and how my swim progresses.

"H20: two parts Heart one part Obsession."  Unknown

No two sessions are ever the same, and I can never accurately judge my energy levels until I'm in the water.  In fact, my energy sometimes surprises me - and more often than not, I have more available than I estimate on my way to the pool.  Swimming in the middle of the day provides a tremendous boost to waning energy levels, and refreshes me preparing me for the rest of my day. 

"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

In allowing myself permission to simply see what happens, I give myself a rare opportunity; much of my day, indeed my week, is mapped out with appointments, and goals I set out to achieve.  By relinquishing the striving tendency, it's like having a mini holiday in the midst of my day:  I am able to appreciate the swim just for the swim and that way the reward really is in the journey.    

"You can't put a limit on anything.  The more you dream the farther you get."  Michael Phelps


Sunday, 4 December 2011

Come together

I believe in groups.  They intrigue and excite me.  I have seen what they are capable of.  I have benefited from belonging to them.  I believe in the power of a group.  They have lives of their own.  The value of a group is always more than the sum of its constituent parts.

"In union there is strength."

People join groups for all sorts of reasons.  We are born into groups; families, communities and others.  Later we become part of groups some that we come across by accident, by chance of our birth or our parents' decisions.  As adults, we have endless memberships available to us, overlapping and complementary, or at odds with each other, with conflicting ends and ideals.

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent."
John Donne

Something very special happens when people get together.  United with a common aim, intention, goal or purpose, a great many things can be achieved when people choose to organise themselves in this way.  Groups have, I think, unlimited potential that can benefit individuals in ways they might never conceive of independently.  

I know that I learn better when around others pursuing a common interest.  I thrive around like minded individuals, and flourish when around minds who are perhaps not at all like mine, but from whom I can still learn a great deal.  Intellectual diversity is often as thrilling as it is challenging.  As a previously enthusiastic competitive debater, I seek out opinions that differ from my own.  Sometimes there is less value to an absolute truth than to something capable of provoking a decent argument.  Through the thorough consideration of one's own position arises significant potential for change.  Thanks to someone else, I can always learn more:  about myself, and about them. 

"None of us is as smart as all of us."
Ken Blanchard (American author and Management Expert, b.1939)

Working alongside others is often challenging but, when journeying towards a common end, usually supportive.  Group fitness is a good example.  All I have to do is get myself there.  Once I'm in the studio, standing on my mat, lying on the bench or sitting astride the bike, it's easy.  I get carried through the class by the vicarious energy that is generated and freely available.  Together we strive, together we achieve.  Mission accomplished.  I know I push myself that bit farther when I'm in company.  Corporate dedication rather than competition, I like to think.  We're in it together.  

It doesn't therefore strike me as anything other than logical that food tastes more delicious when eaten in company, music sounds better when appreciated by a crowd.  Comedy is funnier when you hear others laughing alongside you.  We are, after all, inherently social animals.

"No one can whistle a symphony."
H. E. Luccock (1885-1961, Methodist Minister and Professor of Theology at Yale)

"Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable."  Kenyan proverb