Sunday, 29 January 2012

The Descendants (2011): The long goodbye

'The Descendants' moved me.  And not only to want to book a vacation in Hawaii, tempting though that seems right now as we plunge into another cold snap just when it looked like spring was on the way.  The performances and script complemented eachother beautifully, and the casting was the cherry on the top of an already promising sundae.  It's the type of film that will maybe take a few days to settle. 

I hadn't seen the trailer, or read a review, and there are several other pictures out now that were higher on my list, yet it appealed this weekend.

I adore the cinema.  I love going to the cinema.  Particularly if its an Everyman, Picture House or Curzon. 

In chronological order, the highlights of my trips to the cinema in 2011 were...

The King's Speech
Black Swan
Never Let Me Go
Larry Crowne
The Tree of Life
Horrible Bosses
The Inbetweeners Movie
One Day
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
The Big Year
The Help
We Need to Talk about Kevin
My Week with Marilyn

Creature of habit that I am, I usually head for the middle of the cinema (like most people, I s'pose).  As the cinema trip was rather spontaneous this wasn't an option.  There weren't any options.  It was front row, or no row.  I looked at George (Clooney) and he looked back at me.  What's not to like?  The closer the better, I thought.  The reclining seat meant that the 8 foot between he and I was comfortable.  The fact that I couldn't see the back of anyone's head inbetween us, perfect. 

The film is, essentially, a character study and a testament to the trials and achievements of human frailty and emotion.  Time seems suspended as the audience are invited into an intimate observation of a family gathering its resources, just trying to do its best in the unfortunate circumstances fate has launched them headlong into.  

Clooney inspires terrific empathy as we see him clumsily making-it-up-as-he-goes-along, desperately seeking the 'how to deal with all your worst nightmares, at once' manual.  There are more than a couple of seriously poignant moments that tug at the heartstrings and even the most callous of movie goers could not, I think, fail to feel at least something vaguely emanating from the cardiac muscle.   

Alexander Payne has encapsulated unforeseen single parent living beautifully, and the performances of Clooney's two daughters, Alexandra (17) and Scottie (10) are warm and warming.  Emotions are never far from the surface amongst this family whose tragic reality brings them closer, not least the scene during which Matt (Clooney) attempts to speak with his elder daughter by the pool, and her response to his clumsy handling of such a delicate situation both seen by him and unseen (as we see her underwater).  A close second would be the dockside-clad sprint when Clooney learns a painful truth from his apparently been-there-done-that-got-the-T-shirt teen.   

Few might find this film too long, or too slow, or lacking in direction.  I'm not one of them.  In fact, I think its simplicity is rather beautiful.  There aren't enough movies like this - in which one is transported into the here-and-now pain and hurt of a family trying to come to terms with imminent loss - of someone they love, of the future they had envisaged and the relationships they hadn't valued until they stood to lose them.  I can't see how any homosapien couldn't appreciate the raw presentation of something we can all either relate to, or will one day have to.  The laugh out loud lines sprinkled liberally throughout the score add finesse to this fine film and, in my humble opinion, render it a must-see movie.   

Saturday, 28 January 2012

The Road Less Travelled: that which is journeyed in company

After a while you learn
The subtle difference between
Holding a hand and chaining a soul
And you learn that love doesn’t mean leaning
And company doesn’t always mean security.

And you begin to learn
That kisses aren’t contracts
And presents aren’t promises
And you begin to accept your defeats
With your head up and your eyes ahead
With the grace of a woman
Not the grief of a child

And you learn
To build all your roads on today
Because tomorrow’s ground is
Too uncertain for plans
And futures have a way
Of falling down in mid flight
After a while you learn
That even sunshine burns if you get too much

So you plant your own garden
And decorate your own soul
Instead of waiting
For someone to bring you flowers
And you learn
That you really can endure
That you are really strong
And you really do have worth
And you learn and you learn
With every good bye you learn.

Veronica A. Shoffstall

After a while, as it becomes clear for a great many individuals; it occurred to me that there was only so much work I could do 'on myself' by myself... 
I had reached that point along the road where it was time to risk meeting A.N. Other.  How, or when that might happen was not, I thought, something I could take any part in determining.  So I didn't.

We encounter fellow travellers from time to time.  Some we journey with for longer than others.  Some we get distracted by, and end up taking detours or expeditions we could not have foreseen, didn't plan for, or need.  Some people's company, no matter how brief, can so transform our journey and our experience of it that we feel blessed by the encounter. 

I was pointed towards this poem by one such individual, and have been sharing it ever since with some of those I meet along the way.  Oftentimes, we have had histories and experiences that have kept us small.  Our wounds have taught us to stay independent, and our fears have coached us towards self sufficiency; we have avoided people, out of fear, and attempted to make our way through the world trusting no one (and particularly avoiding those who proffer assistance). 

Entering into any relationship involves taking risks.  The value of any investment can go up, as well as down.  Opening one's heart, and entrusting its contents to another, is a challenge some of us will rise to faster than others.  When the time is right, it may still feel like a risk, but a manageable one.  As the saying goes, "When the pupil is ready, the teacher will appear".  Perhaps relationships are the classroom of the heart, and soul. 

Friday, 27 January 2012

Heading to Nirvana...?

It is said in the early texts that Buddha arose from meditating to teach people, suggesting that he continued to practice after achieving Enlightenment.  Why would he do this?

The interpretation offered to me by a teacher who has given this a great deal more thought than I can claim to have done, is that nirvana is perhaps best regarded as a skill to be mastered rather than a destination we might hope to arrive at. 

As such, there is only 'nirvana-ing'...  The idea appeals to me as someone interested in the power we have to shape our lives by inclining our minds, thoughts, words and actions.

It strikes me as a thoroughly hopeful proposition - that we can learn how to do nirvana, and then practice this, to develop a skill as we might any other than we sought to improve, and maybe even master.  Considering this in some more depth, there is perhaps a lot to be said for accumulating 'little nirvanas' in our daily lives - which, combined, make attaining the desired state and then maintaining it a real possibility.  

As a teacher of mindfulness, I am myself also a student.  I have a practice, which I do perfectly imperfectly, and which I renew my commitment to on a daily basis.  The idea of nirvana as a skill rather than a state is an attractive one; my aim is to become more skillful, and to make progress rather than achieve perfection. 

As a skill, and therefore a verb, nirvana is something that entails flexibility, fluidity and adaptation.  My ability changes, and grows, as I change and grow - to try and separate my practice from my everyday experience would be artificial for they inform one another - my life changes as my practice grows, and my practice changes alongside the challenges and victories I encounter in life.  By loosening my grip on an intended destination, seeing it as both proximate and accessible, I shift my attitude, and adopt a more constructive focus allowing me to better sustain my attention and develop this enriching skill.

Buddhism, if there is in fact any such thing, (there are infinite schools which cannot easily or comfortably be lumped together) is entirely practical in its nature. There is nothing mysterious or esoteric about Buddhist philosophy or thought: there is only one goal - the elimination of suffering and this was the Buddha's sole concern - the nature of suffering and how to achieve freedom from it. Nirvana is the alleviation of suffering, which we can attain one day at a time, and without any special equipment - the first step towards this is to become more friendly towards the entirety of our experience, in order to fully know it, and discern what is helpful to us and what is not. Meditation is one route in this direction - to quieten and still the mind and see what's really going on, in this moment.

When discussing meditation to those who are curious but yet largely unfamiliar, I urge them to try it and to open themselves up to the possibility of arriving at their own definition through their actual, lived experience.  The Buddha urged people to trust nothing but their own experience.  If pushed to describe the process, I would probably suggest it can be thought of as entering our own, internal laboratory in which we become exposed to our sensory and perceptual experience.  Within this laboratory is the possibility of an experiment, which some develop into a longer research project.    


Thursday, 26 January 2012


We are constantly changing.  Some of us work to bring these changes about consciously, and perhaps more quickly than they might organically occur, given our defenses and the tendency to stay in the comfort zone, even when it's pretty uncomfortable; others can go through much of their lives without feeling the need to consider what they'd like to change.  Those lucky few don't tend to present for therapy.  Therapy is all about change.  Telos Therapy, I like to think, is about change from the inside-out.  As such, being in therapy is challenging.  That's the point.  By confronting ourselves, and some of our deeply held belief systems and schemata that keep us stuck, we avail ourselves of space to consider, and room to grow. 

For some clients, change is not simply a hope but absolutely fundamental.  They don't seek subtle changes that perhaps only they, and possibly those closest to them, might become aware of.  They want radical change.  Clients who present with issues relating to gender dysphoria fall into this category.  Labels aren't generally something I go in for, but here I make an exception for the simple reason that the terms are unfamiliar to so many.  Accuracy is important.  Particularly when you're describing someone's identity.  From my perspective, it's about respect.  Just as I query the pronunciation of a name with which I'm not familiar, I always ask clients how they refer to themselves, before taking my lead from them.  There are a great many ways in which individuals may choose to describe themselves.  For some this changes as fluidly as their mood, so assumptions are to be avoided.

For transpeople, Carl Jung's sentiment, "It is the privilege of a lifetime to become who you truly are" holds a poignant and often painful resonance. 

For the uninitiated interested and yet still baffled, here's a brief introduction to some important terminology... 

There's no denying that gender dysphoria is a complex condition that can be difficult to understand, particularly if you happen to have been born into a body that feels like home.  There are a number of gender related terms which are misunderstood and commonly misused.  Mistakes are excusable, but ignorance is not. 

If one was to boil it down to its essential ingredients, gender dysphoria is a condition that describes the feeling of being trapped in a body of the wrong sex.   

An individual's gender identity is the gender that someone feels they should be.

A transsexual is someone with an extreme and long-term case of gender dysphoria, who seeks to alter their biological sex so that this matches their gender identity.  Someone who seeks to alter their sex can do so using hormone treatment and/or surgery.  A person who seeks to undergo, is undergoing or has undergone surgery to alter their sex (also known as transition) may be known as a trans man (female to male, or FtM) or a trans woman (male to female, or MtF).  The term ‘transsexual’ should not be confused with transvestitism or cross-dressing, which typically involves dressing as the opposite sex for emotional or sexual pleasure.  Transvestites are content with their gender identity but enjoy the fantasy of pretending to be a member of the opposite sex.  It is also important to remember that gender dysphoria has no bearing on a person’s sexuality. Just like anyone else, a person with gender dysphoria has a sexual identity which is an entirely separate issue. 

It gets more complicated as gender can be defined using very narrow medical terms such as what types of chromosomes you have or what types of genitals you were born with.  Most transsexuals, and gender dysphoric individuals (and many experts in the treatment of gender dysphoria) find this type of narrow definition both unhelpful and offensive.

My personal feeling is that gender is a matter of personal preference.  If you regard yourself as a man, or a woman, then you have the right to be treated as one.  As such, I tend to use the term gender to refer to the feeling of being either male or female (or, neither or, both). Your gender can be determined by the way in which you project yourself in public, your private persona and the way in which you conduct yourself in the company of those you know and trust, or your legal status - since the Gender Recognition Act 2004. 

Still query-ing?  There are some great resources out there...
 Available on iPlayer for a few days

Provides policy advice and inputs on Government consultations that affect trans people. 

Madeline H. Wyndzen, Ph. D., a transgendered professor of psychology,
discusses her personal experiences with gender dysphoria and critiques the mental illness model of 'Gender Identity Disorder'.

A listening ear, a caring support and an information centre for anyone with any question or problem concerning their gender identity, or whose loved one is struggling with gender identity issues.

Monday, 23 January 2012

courage with a small but mighty 'c'

I once heard courage described as fear that has said its prayers. 

Whilst I do not claim to be religious, I have a definite sense of my own spirituality, and daily practice that helps me stay connected to the idea that there is something greater than me, with a plan bigger than I will ever conceive of. 

A very dear friend of mine was recently diagnosed with cancer.  This is, apparently, part of the plan.  I wouldn't have included it, but here it is and we're dealing with it.  One day at a time makes a whole lot of sense when you're living and breathing something as big as 'The Big C'.

Despair is always an option but, right now, it doesn't hold much appeal.  Nothing is ever hopeless.  Life seems too short for self pity. 

It takes enormous courage to face life under any circumstances.  Doing life 'on life's terms' is a serious challenge.  Everyone does it their own way, and there are no right or wrong ways.  We must all tread a path that feels comfortable for us, and sometimes we find ourselves climbing mountains in inclement weather that we didn't and couldn't have foreseen. 

And so here we are, trudging along.  Putting one foot in front of another.  Humming a tune as we go.  Occasionally finding that, even in the darkest moments, there is usually cause for humour and perhaps even celebration - after all, we need never feel alone.

Sometimes, the most courageous thing we can do is not put on our brave face.  Perhaps the real challenge is to allow ourselves to appear something other than courageous.  Sympathy will not speed our passage.  Life throws up unexpected obstacles, which require strength.  True strength is to be found inside, and is often borne of humility - accepting that we don't have the road map and are afraid of what may lie ahead; reaching out to those that have something other than empty words to offer us; and surrendering to the truth:  accepting that we cannot know what the future holds whilst trusting all the while that we are never given more than we can, collectively, deal with.    

Martin Luther King, Jr. is attributed with saying, "Courage faces fear and thereby masters it".  This sentiment appears to suggest that unless and until we acknowledge our fears, they are apt to remain difficult to get past.  Now is hardly the time to be making life any more difficult than it already is. 

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Cirque du Soleil: Seeing is Believing

A year ago I'd only ever dreamt longingly of seeing a Cirque du Soleil show.  Now I've seen three.  On three different continents.  It's funny how life unfolds.  

Totem at the Royal Albert Hall was a dream come true.  There is a story behind each of the Cirque shows, and Totem follows the evolution of man starting from our amphibian ancestors, to our quest to fly, and soar like our winged friends.  

Totem beautifully and seamlessly evolves as a spellbinding mystical masterpiece where you don't want to blink, as you hardly believe what you behold. 

The language in which the show is presented is multifaceted:  your eyes and ears are captivated, and invited to pause a moment, suspended in disbelief as your assumptions as to the limits of the human body are questioned and swiftly dispelled. 

The art is an exacting science, and with the exception of one act, the performers are unaided by safety ropes, relying on their own physical precision and grace to present a gem whose content has stuck in my mind for the last week.  The sheer beauty is awesome, and the whole experience intensified through the absence of language.  

Narrative would be quite superfluous to this experience which represented a feast for the senses, and the imagination.  The food for thought was the innate elegance that, paradoxically, has been retained by apparently less evolved creatures whose worlds don't require them to strive in the way our superbrains cause us to.

From where I was sitting, it was the roller skaters stole the show, spinning and whirling at heart-stopping speeds on top of a tiny drum shaped platform – just 1.8 meters in diameter.

You can't help but hold your breath as five unicyclists juggle metal bowls at a considerable height, in an astounding display of agility, balance, synchronised control and physical grace.  Gasps are audible as the performers up their act and begin tossing the bowls with their feet – sometimes over their shoulders – before catching them on their heads without using their hands.

In this act, 10 artists performed incredible feats of strength, balance and acrobatic movements.
The jumpers are launched into the air and fly weightlessly across the sky, leaping from one bar to the next with astonishing agility in a thrilling evocation of the human desire to escape the earthly confines of gravity.

Whilst the trailer is impressive, this show has to be seen live to be believed!

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Shattered but still whole

My glasses snapped this morning.  The damage is irreparable.  Oh well.  In the grand scheme of things, whilst irritating, and somewhat inconvenient, I have another pair (several, actually) and they are replaceable.  I have had several pieces of news recently that have caused me to pause, and think about the truly precious nature of time, and how life really is too short to sweat the small stuff. 

There are things over which I have no control.  Shit happens.  As M. Scott Peck so wisely wrote:  Life is difficult (The Road Less Travelled, 1978/1992, p.13). Good, so now we've come to terms with that, we can actually get on with it.

In her poem, A Summer Day, Mary Oliver posed the question:  Tell me, what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?  It's well worth considering, given that this may well be it.  I don't find this unpalatable, or even particularly maudlin.  The opposite, acceptance gives me clarity and with it, a sense of true liberation.    

I could, I suppose, patch the frames together.  Even as a temporary solution, selotape would feel unsatisfactory.  These are, after all, the lenses through which I view the world.  They shape my perspective, and afford me my focus.  Sometimes, it's time to say goodbye, and let go of those things that no longer serve us., or that aren't doing their job to the requisite standard.   

I admire and resonate with Diane Ackerman's sentiment in her statement:  I don't want to get to the end of my life and find that I lived just the length of it.  I want to have lived the width of it as well.  2012 is well underway, and glasses or no glasses, I'm determined to make the most of it. 

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Shame (2011)

As the closing credits began to roll, the guy sitting in the adjacent seat turned to me and asked me what I had thought.  I found it almost impossible to try and capture my mindstate and articulate it to a stranger at that moment in the briefest of summaries. 

I thought it was brilliant.  A cinematic masterpiece.  I didn't use those words.  It was quite obvious he didn't agree.  It was disturbing.  But real.  Staggeringly real.  The research that had gone into it was clear from the opening scenes as we see Brandon, the protagonist played exquisitely (and, at times, excruciatingly) by Michael Fassbender lying alone in bed, clearly preoccupied.  Later, we discover the true extent of the daily battle he faces, and the powerful grip of his addiction.

Fassbender's performance cuts to the very core of the issue that Abi Morgan and Steve McQueen have tackled.  Nothing is left to the imagination, as sexual addiction is truly brought out of the shadows, and exposed for the beast it is.  We follow Brandon as he desperately attempts to maintain his life alongside his shameful secret, and see the increasingly harrowing journey the progressive and unrelenting illness takes him on.

The pervasive nature of addiction is highlighted and the title is striking in its central and starring role.  Just as with all addictive processes, shame is not only the primary ingredient, but also a catalyst, maintainer and resulting product.  Addiction is a shame based illness, and sexual addiction thrives in the darkness it is forced to occupy, the ultimate in taboo subjects, and one of the most difficult problems for any individual, let alone an apparently high functioning New Yorker, to gain the help they need and deserve.

Carey Mulligan's most poignant line is heard in an answerphone message Sissy leaves her brother before opening several arteries: "We're not bad people.  We just come from a bad place."  The viewer is left to speculate where that might have been though the hallmarks don't speak of a safe or supported childhood.  They are both on seemingly inevitable paths of self destruct. 

The scenes unfold with both a content and rythm that maintained an extraordinary momentum.  The audience travel alongside Brandon, accompanying him to the insalubrious depths his addiction forces him visit.  One experiences the obsession gathering pace all the time as he has to go to greater lengths (and risks) in an attempt to satisfy his insatiable appetites: More.  Now.  Again.  They stop at nothing, and whilst he doesn't lack self awareness, we see him trapped and alone in the bubble of his addictive cycle, unable to escape through willpower alone.  It doesn't make for comfortable viewing, but rather portrays one person's story clearly and unashamedly.   


Colleagues specialising in Sexual Addiction

Articles about Sexual Addiction

Recovery Online and Off

Recommended Reading

Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction
Patrick Carnes, PhD
This is the landmark book introducing and legitimising sexual behaviours and sexual fantasies as an addictive disease. Dr. Carnes proposes three levels of sexual addiction, describes the addiction cycle and its progression, and presents the faulty core beliefs of the addict and the co addict and their healthy counterparts.

Contrary to Love: Helping the Sexual Addict
Patrick Carnes
In this sequel to Out of the Shadows, Dr. Carnes adds to his original descriptions of sex addiction, describing the stages of the illnesses. He presents here his Sexual Addiction Screening test, useful to therapists and addicts alike.

A Gentle Path Through the Twelve Steps
Patrick Carnes
This is the first workbook on the Twelve Steps specifically designed with sex addicts and co addicts in mind. It offers comprehensive and practical exercises for each of the twelve steps for anyone for anyone working a sexual recovery program.

Don't Call It Love: Recovery from Sexual Addiction
Patrick Carnes
Based on research involving over 1,000 recovering sex addicts and co addicts, this comprehensive work outlines the stages of recovery and presents advice from the addicts and co addicts themselves as they work to overcome their compulsive behaviour. Recommended both for counsellors and for recovering people.

Lonely All the Time: Recognising, Understanding and Overcoming Sex Addiction, for Addicts and Codependents
Ralph Earle & Gregory Crow
This book addresses the needs and concerns of all sexual addicts, regardless of their sexual orientation, and also of the addict's codependent partner. They authors explore the causes and symptoms of sex addiction.  They also include a comprehensive and practical approach to recovery for the addict and family.

Hope and Recovery: A Twelve-Step Guide for Healing From Compulsive Sexual Behaviour
This was one of the first books to comprehensively describe the application of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous to sexual addiction and compulsivity. It also includes a wide range of personal stories in which recovering sexual addicts share their experience, strength, and hope.

Women, Sex, and Addiction: A Search for Love and Power
Charlotte Davis Kasl
This book is a major contribution to the understanding and healing of sex addiction, romance addiction, and sexual codependency in women. It is full of wisdom and insight, shedding light on what happens to women in our society, how they survive it, and some roads to self-respect.

Is It Love or is it Addiction?
Brenda Schaeffer
This book helps readers understand love addiction and to sort out the unhealthy, addictive elements in their romantic relationship. Brenda presents a solid theory of love addiction and healthy love, with practical examples to illustrate her concepts.

In the Shadows of the Net: Breaking Free of Compulsive Online Sexual Behaviour
Patrick Carnes, David L. Delmonico & Elizabeth Griffin
Updated with the latest information, trends, and developments, this book equips readers with specific strategies for recognising and changing compulsive sexual behaviours. Personal stories reveal how desperate life can become for online sex addicts--divorce, career loss, and financial ruin are common outcomes. More importantly the authors set forth a path for breaking free from compulsive online sexual behaviour and sustaining lifelong recovery.

Untangling the Web: Sex, Porn, and Fantasy Obsession in the Internet Age
Robert Weiss & Jennifer Schneider
With personal stories from addicts and their significant others, this updated essential resource offers realistic healing strategies for anyone experiencing the devastating impact of Internet pornography and sex addiction on intimacy, relationships, career, health, and self-respect.

Lust/Anger/Love: Understanding Sexual Addiction and the Road to Healthy Intimacy
Maureen Canning
Canning shows how compulsions are the product of early childhood abuse and how patterns, from the most violent to the most commonplace, develop. She explains that the overriding emotion sexually addicted people feel towards the partners with whom they seek intimacy is anger turned into sexuality, or "sexualized anger." This yields a false sense of security and power, an "aggressive tendency," which destroys any chance of a healthy relationship. Lust, Anger, Love offers a comprehensive and enlightening look at the origins of these little discussed behaviours and maps out a plan for recovery.

Is it Love or is it Addiction?
Brenda Schaeffer
Schaeffer draws on years of feedback and new developments to foster an understanding of love addiction: what it is and what it is not, how to identify it, and, even more important, how to get out of it. Stories of real individuals struggling to develop sound relationships illustrate the characteristics of healthy love and help readers to free themselves to live life more abundantly.


Thursday, 12 January 2012

Bright and beautiful

"Mrs. Dalloway said that she would get the flowers herself."  (Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf, first published 1925).

I always buy the flowers myself.  Clients rarely comment upon them, but they're generally there.  Fresh and bright, sitting silently and unremarkably in my therapy room.  I like what they add to the environment, and find they bring in their presence something rather hard to define...

I enjoy choosing them, and tend to mix it up as the seasons change.  Lillies are a firm favourite, and my room often boasts a lofty fragrance (which was helpful when someone managed to spill a large Grande Hazelnut Latte towards the end of last year).  Currently, I have tulips.  They're bright yellow. 

Somehow, whilst adding a splash of colour to an otherwise largely neutral decor, the flowers stand for more than decoration.  They convey a hopefulness which can often be helpful.  They are friendly, and offer, I trust, the warm welcome I seek to offer each person who comes to see me. 

They represent an offering - a small thought, and a celebration - an honouring of the purpose of my encounters with those whom I feel privileged to walk alongside.  No two flowers are the same - just like those I work with.  Both are precious, and have extraordinary potential.   

Each vase provides some helpful parallels with the process I seek to catalyse - flowers require care and maintenance.  I change their water, and add the food supplement.  They don't like being left for too long by the radiator, and appreciate a good dose of sunlight.  Whilst some last a surprisingly long time, change is inevitable - rarely do clients see the same flowers twice.  Each session is a new beginning, and it seems important therefore to reflect this with vibrant, and alive buds rather than tired or decaying flowers. 

In the middle of London, I like to have some nature nearby and close to my work - by bringing it indoors, I am reminded and comforted by the sheer beauty of my flowers of our relative insignificance in comparison to the power of the natural environment. 

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

From the Couch

There are, it seems, great lessons to be learned on holiday.  Trying to maintain some of the serenity experienced outside of my routine, whilst getting back into my routine is the challenge.  Whilst away, I took advantage of being 'time rich' and enjoyed exploring massage, trying different treatments experimenting with the different benefits each afforded.

"You don't have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body."
C. S. Lewis

No two massage experiences are the same.  I am never the same person who gets onto the couch or, into the chair.  Different therapists have different approaches, and different days will require different emphases and variations in the pressure to be applied for the optimal treatment.   

My investigation took me from top notch spas with wonderful facilities, into practitioners' sitting rooms, and to the office of a charity which trains the blind and partially sighted the art of acupressure.  Treatments were accompanied sometimes by preparatory bathing rituals in sumptuous surroundings, and at other times by the briefest of introductions in broken English.  Each time, regardless of any language barrier, the therapist's warmth was evident. 

Massage can be a relaxing experience.  For me, the relaxation is a by-product of a treatment and usually follows a fairly rigorous work out during which I become aware of how much I am holding on to, and posed with a choice as to what it is that I can let go of.  The sense of release is often surprisingly powerful, and sometimes entails an unexpected cartharsis. 

"There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophies."
Friedrich Nietzche

"Our bodies are apt to be our autobiographies."  Frank Gillette Burgess

There is, I think, something very special about massage.  It stems from the power of touch, and contact between two human beings.  There is a mystical quality that defies articulation meaning that massage remains intriguing and alluring. 

What I noticed most starkly was the cumulative effect of having regular treatments.  Whilst I was mixing and matching, and didn't have the same treatment twice, there was a lasting effect and each built on the last and prepared me for the next in a process of opening, and growing.  With each massage, I developed a greater trust, for the therapist, the therapy and my process all of which, I believed, enhanced and deepened the experience.

"Take care of your body. It's the only place you have to live."  Jim Rohn

"What we feel and think and are is to a great extent determined by the state of our ductless glands and viscera."  Aldous Huxley

Having experienced different forms of foot massage, and reflexology, Indian head massage and acupressure I feel I have begun along a path stumbled across quite by accident, and am looking forward to continuing this exciting journey of discovery here in London.  I'm excited to have already realised one of my resolutions, by making an appointment and so turning my intention into action.   

"We must not cese from exploration.  And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and to know the place for the first time." 
T. S. Eliot

Monday, 9 January 2012

Meanderings from my Mat

My beautiful new orange yoga mat (thank you, Honor) has inspired me to consider some goals for my practice in the year ahead.  Attending my first class of 2012 presented several challenges, and reminded me about the importance of setting intentions as the first step along the road heading towards achievement.
Feathered Peacock

My first intention is to continue to practice regularly, by attending classes and practising alone at home.  I know that those individuals whose progress I have admired to date have incorporated a series of asanas into their daily routine, and have reaped the rewards. 

In terms of the poses I wish to concentrate on, forearm balances are definitely up there.  I have pretty good strength in my arms and shoulders (helped by swimming) but encounter a challenge when I seek to balance on them!  Whilst my forearms are reasonably strong, my real challenge is getting my rather long and unwiedly legs off the floor from Dolphin, a feat I will have achieve to realise my dream of the Feathered Peacock pose (Pincha Mayurasana).  Ever the realist, I have decided to master this along the same lines as I have improved my Headstand (Sirshasana) by practising a modified version, against the wall.  One of my immediate aims for 2012, is to face the fear and begin to practice my headstand, unsupported, in the middle of the room - resisting the temptation to move my mat to the wall or studio mirror. 

With both forward bends and backbends, it is progress rather than perfection that I seek.  I find the Bow pose (Dhanurasana) a real challenge, and some days can barely reach back to grab my ankles.  Other days, it comes more easily, and I can roll backwards and forwards on my tummy.  I'm a long way off attaining the Wheel, but just like the tortoise will plod along, and hopefully get there at some point.  In the meantime, I will continue to build my Bridge pose, and each class challenge myself to place my hands alongside my ears, and lift onto the crown of my head - the first preparatory stage en route to the full wheel pose.

Oftentimes, my head is less willing than my body and gets in the way of me trying new things, or developing the postures beyond that which feels comfortable, and familiar.  My current practice is as much about adopting a psychological flexibility as achieving physical suppleness.

My hamstrings are, like most cyclists', pretty tight.  They have, on occasion, been described as masculine.  Whilst I may never achieve bendy status, I would love to get a little further in my forward bends, such as Paschimottanasana (seated forward bend) and Upavistha Konasana (wide angle seated forward bend).  Little and often is probably the way forward to progress in these poses.  My biggest challenge in classes is to avoid comparing and despairing - how do they get their foreheads flat onto their thighs/the floor?

Likewise, my shoulders are stiff.  Not equally so, though: I can now reach my left hand far enough up my back, to clasp two or sometimes three fingers with my right hand.  Even with someone's help, I cannot yet say the same on the opposite side, my right shoulder is tighter than my left and lacks the manoeuvrability.  My facial expression, whilst not perhaps immediately identifiable as that of a cow, tells the story of my impatience and frustration. 

Cow faced Pose

Half Moon
Whilst my balance has improved, it gets a little more tricky in Half Moon pose (Ardha Chandrasana), and I notice a distinct discrepancy between my left and right sides which I would like to address.  The trick really is to keep breathing, and to lift my head rather than inspecting my toenails and assessing the urgency of a pedicure. 

Similarly, whilst my first two (standing) Warrior poses are looking far more graceful, Virabhadrasana III requires my attention.  Softening my gaze, and focusing on my breath is undoubtedly useful, but always a struggle. 

Standing on one leg, with my arms outstretched in front of me at shoulder height with my body horizontal to the ground will never come naturally, but muscle memory is not to be underestimated, and I am doing things now I couldn't have imagined 18 months ago. 

Warrior III

Crow pose
Considering my progress to date (as a relatively new yogi), I am rather proud of my Tree pose (Vrikshasana), and have enjoyed developing my Crow balance (Bakasana).  I have started to introduce variations to my side plank (Vasisthasana), and am now quite comfortable in this pose on both sides.  My camel (Ushtrasana) backbend has developed with practice, and I am now able to progress from my Shoulder Stand (Sarvangasana) into the Plough pose (Halasana).  I would like to one day get my head down to the floor, and progress from the wide legged forward bend (Prasarita Padottanasana) to a tripod headstand. 

Tree pose

Yoga has taught me to be gentle with myself, and to work within my limits. Each time I practice a subtle challenge presents itself.  Can I find the true balance that this discipline entails? 
Patience and perseverance are friendly allies, and a force to be reckoned with, particularly when combined with compassionate dedication. 
Yoga is, for me, another journey:  an enjoyable and rewarding one that requires commitment rather than effort, and consistency rather than striving. 

Friday, 6 January 2012

Growing Pains

I have been thinking some more about what is often referred to as personal development.  It strikes me that the key to this elusive activity is one's powerlessness over what may be unlocked.  The more work I do on myself, the less well I believe I know me.  I believe that our potential is infinite and that nothing can prepare you for what is possible.

In order for us to evolve, grow and develop, it is necessary to constantly review what we are carrying, in order to assess whether we need or want to continue to take this with us into the next lines and chapters of our autobiographies and, if not, to shed the excess baggage. 

Experience has shown me that we have little, if any, control over the scheduling of growth spurts or the timescales involved; all I know is that it happens at the right time.  Sometimes, we'll be caught by surprised, as the past has a funny habit of catching up with us.  Oftentimes it'll be at the most inopportune and inconvenient of times, when we want nothing less than to have to look inwards - this is, I've found, precisely what we need to do, and do it we must for what we resist, persists.  

Each of us will be familiar with our own self defeating tendencies, and each volume of the endless story will reveal some more about how we ourselves become our own obstacles and stumbling blocks by pushing away that which we experience as unpleasant or aversive, by attempting to escape by whatever means, or by avoiding, denying or suppressing that where we are is perhaps rather uncomfortable.   

Whilst it may well be progress rather than perfection, this journey once embarked upon is a one-way affair.  There's no turning back - a little like a travelator, we are bound to go with the flow.  We can run, walk or crawl; at times we may feel as though the best we can do is to stand still: we'll still get there in the end.  Sometimes, life requires us to board an escalator - the principle's the same, but the incline steeper involving more effort, and requiring us to put the footwork in.  Slow and steady is usually better than jumping two steps at a time, the summit isn't visible so who's to say how long we may be climbing.  

Going on being is probably the biggest challenge, as much of this adventure is uncharted territory.  There is no map.  There are no guidebooks.  We all of us need to find ways to work through, and discover the courage so that when the going gets tough, we keep going. 

Painstaking work this may be, with an abundance of growing pains to accompany the shocking realisation that we are unlikely to ever 'arrive', but the importance of honouring oneself for the brave undertaking should not be forgotten - it is each of us alone that is capable of facilitating the emergence of our own true selves. 

Just as the lotus flower that rises beautiful and serene out of muddy waters
may we develop and grow from the sufferings in our life and bloom to show our true inner beauty


Thursday, 5 January 2012

Holidays: same me, different venue

Whilst enjoying a change of scenery, I started to think about the psychological mechanics of holidaying.  It occurred to me that we are liable and likely to unpack from the suitcase far more than the baggage we chose to bring along with us for the trip.  Jon Kabat-Zinn summarised it in the title of one of his books: 'Wherever you go, there you are' - we can't help but unpack ourselves on arrival. 

I notice this in myself as on vacation I remain a creature of habit.  Like most people, I thrive on routine.  Familiarity is comfortable, and what is known feels safer than that which is unknown.  So, even during the shortest of breaks away, little habits emerge which, whilst radical adjustments from my usual routine, are themselves akin to a routine. 

"First we make our habits, then our habits make us."  Dennis Waitley

"Habit is either the best of servants or the worst of masters."  Nathaniel Emmons

Exploring a completely new place is an exciting opportunity to let the child within take up the reins: arriving in an alien destination presents numerous challenges and huge potential to experiment.  Approaching the new environment with the degree of curiosity and adventure one might observe in a child has the effect of radically influencing my experience.  As one can never be a stranger to the same circumstance twice, the opportunity is indeed valuable.  The test is to open one's senses more fully, to take in the vast amount of sensory information available, rather than remaining with the cognitive data we are apt to settle for.  Looking to see, and listening to hear can reap unforeseen rewards and provide a deeper experience than photographs can ever testify to. 

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Twelve Steps spoken here

It's a privilege to be a member of a truly international club.  My clubhouse requires no membership card, and I'm not asked to prove my income in order to join.  Yet it confers some of the most sought after benefits I know of.  The warmest of welcomes is guaranteed on arrival, and I am certain to be surrounded by genuinely like minded individuals.  There are no fees or dues, and lifelong membership is encouraged.   

Wherever I am, I need never feel alone for I walk amongst fellow travellers who have chosen the same path and they're easy to find.  I'm never far from a meeting at which I'm always welcome.  Whilst our clubs may look a little different on the outside, membership is entirely reciprocal and regardless of time zone, I'm likely to find conventions that cross borders.  Ours is a common currency of human experience, communicated through transcontinental identification.


Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Another rewarding journey

Visiting Lantau Island, and the Tian Tan Buddha featured highly on my list of priorities whilst in Hong Kong.  It was well worth the at times excruciating 2 hour wait to board the Ngong Ping cable car, which had the effect of introducing a pilgrimage quality to the expedition, challenging commitment and testing both patience and stamina.  The final leg of the journey involves climbing the 268 steps up to the lotus platform on which the Buddha sits.   

The awesome giant bronze Buddha which stands (or more accurately sits) at 34m tall and weighs over 250 tonnes took 12 years to complete occupies a majestic position, sitting serenely atop the Ngong Ping plateau, overlooking the spectacular mountain scenery of Lantau.  The magnificent figure with its compelling presence inspires Buddhists from all over Asia, and attracts tourists from all over the globe and had the perhaps unforeseen effect of transforming the distinctly humble Po Lin monastery, and its devout monks who offer delicious vegetarian fare to their visitors into a must-see destination which features on many a tourguide's schedule. 

What is perhaps undertaken by fewer travellers is the bus ride back to Tung Chung station.  Comparable only to the alpine coach journeys I've endured in anticipation of, or following a ski trip, route 23 really did challenge one's newly restored sanity/serenity.  With the only seat belt being available to (but not worn by) the driver, passengers were obliged to rely on the headrests of those in front of them, and sharp inhalations of breath were to be heard as we wound around the tight hairpin turns which dominated the circuitous return journey.  Judging by the speed at which most of the camera clutching passengers disembarked from the bus, it seemed as though the sight of the MTR (underground) station was a more than usually welcome one.  

Climbing off the bus, albeit with some degree of relief having arrived at the intended destination (which might, at certain points during the journey, have inspired quite high odds) I found myself still captivated and awestruck by the proportions of the Buddha, and the graceful beauty of it and the surrounding statues, 'the Offering of the Six Devas' each of which is depicted offering a different gift to the Buddha: flowers, incense, lamp, ointment, fruit, and music.  I later discovered that the offerings are anything but coincidental generosity, as they symbolise charity, morality, patience, zeal, meditation, and wisdom: the necessary prerequisites to achieve nirvana. 

Whilst I am, I fear, still some way off nirvana, the day trip moved me on a very deep level.  Apparently the hormones released at childbirth cause women to instantly forget the pain labour involves (which explains how we are able to give birth more than once without requiring lobotomies), the memories that proliferate having visited the gentle giant who represents the possibility of harmonious relationship between man and nature, people and religion obliterated the arduous struggle endured to get there.