Thursday, 31 May 2012

Taking a Stance

Mindfulness has become somewhat of a buzz word.  It’s in fashion.  People are talking about it.  Everyone seems to have heard of it.  Some have tried it.  Once or twice.  They may have read about it.  In a magazine article.  Or even a book.  Scratch beneath the surface of the hype, and therein lies the confusion.  It appears so simple to those who want to grab and grasp what it may have to offer them.  For those of us who have been treading this path a little longer, it is so much more than a passing fad.  Mindfulness is a way of life.  A way of being in the world.  A way of being in ourselves.

So often I hear people define mindfulness as paying attention in the present moment.  This is true, but it is far from the whole story.  Mindfulness for mindfulness’ sake is hardly worth the effort.  Mindfulness is not, and never was, ethically neutral.  It is a quality that is cultivated with the intention of informing our future thoughts, words and actions.  In this way, mindfulness is the way towards wise response.  Mindfulness is the key to understanding what needs to be done and when.  There are times when we should not just sit there, that there is something that requires our action.  There are other times when to spring into action would be counterproductive without first considering with our full attention what our next step might be.  Mindfulness is a training for the muscle of the mind, to enable us to progress in the right mental gear, responding to the world around us rather than habitually reacting.


Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Choosing not to go there

I’m often asked whether I recommend meditation to those new in recovery.  It’s not something I feel qualified to answer, as individual practice is very personal.  There are some schools of meditation whose teachings would doubtless be more challenging for those who have only recently got sober, but mindfulness is probably not one of those.  There are however a few considerations for anyone wishing to explore meditation as an adjunct to recovery. 
Firstly, the importance of a good teacher cannot be overstated.  I have been privileged to learn, I think, with the best.  I got a solid platform on which to establish a platform some years ago from a teacher about whom, at the time, I knew very little.  Today I know better how fortunate I was to be taught by her.  Whilst there are some excellent books available, complemented by DVDs and downloads, there is, I believe, no substitute for sitting in a room with someone who embodies what they teach.  I know I learn best by example, and learning to meditate is no exception.  Finding a teacher with whose outlook you resonate is important, and attending interesting sounding events and following up word of mouth recommendations have served me well in this respect.

Within the mindfulness approach, there is something known as wise attention, or protective mindfulness which, to me, is key to those practising early in their sobriety.  There is a choice we all have, simply not to go to places that feel overwhelming.  Mindfulness starts with an awareness and acceptance of our own internal resources, and sitting for protracted periods of time in positions that perhaps feel uncomfortable, is probably not terribly helpful to those who might find more respite in learning about the applications of mindfulness in everyday life. 
Mindfulness is intended to complement one’s resources, not detract from them.  For this reason, when considering offering mindfulness in treatment settings, or for those who have recently completed a residential or day programme, I might well start with the shorter practices, such as the Breathing Space, or Mindful Eating.  I usually advise individuals new to the practice to keep their eyes open, with a soft focus and lowered gaze, which can serve an important purpose should sleep beckon, and may also feel more comfortable, particularly in a group setting.  Mindfulness of sight and sound seem to me to be two good practices that are perhaps more accessible to those of us recovering from substance dependence, or eating disorders than the Body Scan which is conventionally taught at the beginning of an 8 week course. 
For any of us, no matter how long around, we are responsible for looking after ourselves, and it remains important to remember that our meditation practice might easily become another opportunity to berate or chastise, if we do not bring to it the qualities of self acceptance and compassion. 

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Powerless, Unmanageable and Homeless

It occurred to me recently that this journey is far from an easy one.  It demands everything we have.  And often feels as though it requires more than we have to give.  To approach the task with rigorous honesty is to come to accept that many of the places we have sought refuge and even made sanctuaries lack the implicit qualities to provide us any shelter in the midst of the storms we seek to escape.  The so-called gift of awareness is in fact a double edged sword as whilst it promises growth and progress, this comes at a price.  It will doubtless get cold and uncomfortable as we emerge from those familiar hiding places, our well developed habits, distractions and obsessions along the path of freedom from self, and from self constructed fantasies.
We have, for whatever reason, imbued the most inappropriate people, places and things, with apparently magical qualities, hoping they might hold the keys to our happiness when in fact the combination to that particular padlock was to be found only within ourselves.  Coming to accept responsibility for our destiny, on a moment to moment basis, is certainly a challenge but one well worth the risk.  The first step is to allow our illusions to fall away, in order to see more clearly our resources, and dust each of them off in preparation for the journey we must each go alone. 

‘We don't receive wisdom. We must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.’  Marcel Proust

Monday, 28 May 2012

Balancing Act

Equanimity is not a word we hear an awful lot about.  I am not sure of its translation or usage in other languages, but am aware that in English, it doesn’t tend to sit in common parlance.  Perhaps that’s just a reflection of my experience, perhaps not.  We might, at first, see it as simple indifference.  This would, I think, miss out half the story.  Equanimity seems, to me, to be far more akin to powerlessness.  A straightforward acknowledgment of where we sit, in relation to the world, and to our fellow beings.

It carries with it a sense of our powerlessness as individuals, and as groups, over this world of conditions and of the suffering we will inevitably encounter and witness others also experience.  It implies also our powerlessness over others’ thoughts and feelings, reminding us that we have dominion over only our own minds and hearts.  We cannot seek to alter another’s feelings towards us, and we will doubtless come across those who love us, and those who perhaps do not.  We may even find that there are some people who not only don’t love us, they perhaps dislike us.  This is just the way it is. 
It is the third part of equanimity that intrigues me the most – highlighting to us those things that we can change, in our perceptions and the weight we attach to them.  It asks us to truthfully enquire whether the impressions that we are apt to form in an instant are deserving and worthy of the enduring respect we tend to give them.
Equanimity entails, I think, a softening and opening.  To manifest this quality we might allow ourselves to be surprised from time to time.  As we surprise ourselves, we might hold our realities a little less tightly, allowing those beliefs that do not serve us to drop away to create room for a future different to our past. 

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Time to shine

Approaching the ExCel Centre and the Royal Victoria Dock yesterday morning there was a somewhat incongruous mixture of people meandering around - those attending the London Comic Con MCM Expo and those who had or were planning to swim a mile in the Thames.  Clad in my brand new wetsuit, nerves began to escalate as we surveyed the course.  The circuit demarcated by the buoys and safety team bobbing in kayaks seemed to stretch into the middle distance.  We watched a few swimmers complete the course, and I began to worry.

I was relieved to meet Rob, who proudly told me this was his first open water event.  We matched - wearing matching BlueSeventy suits, and identical Aquasphere goggles.  We chatted about our training as we stood in the queue to check-in to swim in the 'Blue Wave' scheduled to start at 12:30 and I began to feel better about things.  Whilst it was sunny, the conditions weren't as good as they had been earlier, and the water was pretty choppy.  Kerri-Ann Payne wasn't looking to smash any personal bests and Rob and I agreed that we'd be pleased with sub 40 minutes.

I was glad for Rob's advice about making the most of the acclimatisation time.  We sat in the water before immersing our faces after counting to 3.  I was surprised how salty the Thames was.  After a snappy group warm-up to the music of Gotye and safety briefing, we passed under the gantry and started our swim.  The first 300m were hard going.  I struggled to get into a rhythm and swallowed rather too much water.  There were too many people.  I couldn't see the course.  I felt out of my depth.  I was. 

Out of my depth perhaps, but it wasn't long before I got into my stroke.  Passing the 400m mark, I had settled and regained my focus.  The task ahead felt manageable, and I decided to enjoy the experience.  Surrounded by fellow swimmers, all of us equally enthusiastic, there was discernible camaraderie in the water. 

Swimming into the wind, I felt at times as though I was barely treading water, rather than actually making progress.  I was more than relieved to pass the half way point, but disappointed we didn't turn for a further 100m or so.  Returning back under the footbridge I spotted the finish, and gave it my best. 

I finished at 00:32:50 which placed me 654th overall (out of 2176 swimmers).  I came 186 out of 964 women. 

Swimming in the sunshine in aid of Breast Cancer Care and Marie Curie felt like a wonderful way to kick off the weekend but meeting Charlotte in the Park this morning was the highlight.  Seeing her in the saddle just a week after a rather gruelling sixth chemo was nothing short of brilliant.  Riding a couple of circuits with her at a comfortable pace was fab.  Whilst I am proud of my little medal, it is her achievements that really shine.  This morning in Richmond, I basked in her glory and was just thrilled to pedal alongside my best friend, the true hero. 

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Lose your Mind and Come Back to your Senses (Fritz Perls)

He referred to the mind as a wild elephant that needs to be tamed.  The metaphor struck home, as did the image of tying it to a stake in the ground and expecting the elephant to submit.  This week of largely unbroken quietness has been about cultivating right effort and right concentration.  We have been shown the virtue of doing one thing and only one thing at a time.  When sitting, sit.  When walking, walk.  When eating, eat.  Through this systematic attempt at single-tasking, one can see more clearly how much of our lives is spent ambitiously (and possibly rather arrogantly) multi-tasking, and how exhausting and depleting this is, as an endless and uninterrupted mode of functioning.  We need only think rationally about the act of composing a text message whilst following the GPS driving through an unfamiliar area, catching up on the news whilst having a conversation about our present difficulties at work, or whatever our mind somehow is still able to call to mind.  This is hardly skilful living.  The mind is like water: the more widely it is dispersed, the less depth there will be.

There is an alternative.  If we seek to get onto talking terms with Nelly’s distant cousin we might try to open the doors to our sensory experience, and awaken fully to the here and now.  Awareness is what distinguishes us from the other species we co-habit alongside in this world, and yet we neglect it now we no longer rely upon it as we once needed to as hunter gatherers occupying a hostile environment in which, if we didn’t have our wits about us, we might likely be someone’s dinner.  Getting back into our bodies is the best way to free up our minds.  Try it.  Switch off, sit down, and breathe.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Eau de Chlorine...

Is my new favourite scent.  Swimming has for a long time been something more than a simply pleasure.  It is a sanity saver.  When I swim, I need for nothing.  I feel free.  I have nothing to do, nowhere to go, no one to be.  I can just swim.  I am fortunate in that I have taught myself a pretty efficiency technique which means that, for the most part, swimming is easy.  I can, and often do, swim with my eyes closed.  When swimming in a lane, I rarely need to see ahead of me, and my position in the water tends to mean that my eyes are downward facing, to the bottom of the pool.  It depends how busy it is of course but peak conditions mean I have the lane to myself and can swim ‘blind’ to my heart’s content, feeling my way through the water and counting my strokes – an average of 9 in a 25m pool, or 3 breaths. 

Next weekend however, the smell of chlorine will be absent, as I plunge into the Thames at Docklands.  I’m excited by the prospect of my open water debut, in my wetsuit.  I’m more excited by the prospect of raising much needed money for two very important charities – Breast Cancer Care and Marie Curie.     

Monday, 21 May 2012

In my element

When a friendly (and similarly enthusiastic) swimmer I met on the poolside at Frome Leisure Centre told me about the 50m swimming pool at Bath University, I could hardly contain my excitement.  I must confess I thought of leaving the pool we were about to get into, and make my way immediately to the campus at Quarry Road.  But I held off, to make the journey another day (the very next day, in fact).  I can quite see why the University of Bath was hailed as the University of the Year 2011/12.  It is, quite simply, incredible. 
I was blown away on arrival at the Team Bath Sports Village.  My own alma mater in the North East of England did not even have a pool.  I kid you not.  I was an undergraduate at a university without its own swimming pool.  Bath University has a truly magnificent pool.  Eight lanes each of fifty metres.  Blue heaven.
As I arrived on the poolside, it was love at first sight.  I took my time, and laid my bits and bobs (floats, fins, paddles and the mandatory underwater mp3) down, to put on my swimming cap and goggles.  I had arrived.  I did my first 3k in under an hour, pulling all the way, using only my arms.  I didn’t stop, and continued with a 1k cool down, arms and legs loving every lap.  Other swimmers came and went, but we were there for the same reason and united with a common purpose.  There was plenty enough room for us all.  I could have swum all afternoon.  But my pay and display parking ticket had an expiry.

This rather enjoyable afternoon swim means I have visited 4 new pools and swum 15k in the last 6 days which pleases me a great deal.  Each swim I have thought a great deal on the value of my health that I have perhaps too often taken for granted.  Today I realise how precious my health is.  Impressions of Charlotte’s graceful and brave battle against the alien rarely leaves me and every time I enter a changing room, before a swim, a spin class or BodyCombat session, I am reminded of my commitment back in January, to enjoy my health, my fitness and my body to the max. 
This week she has fought and survived round 6 of her 8 cycle chemo regimen.  Whilst my swimming is perhaps personally noteworthy, her progress fills me with profound humility and is, to my mind, deserving of boundless respect.  I like to think that the seemingly endless lengths are improving my hugs. 

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Finding my Feet. Keeping my Balance.

There is no doubt that were I asked to design a retreat centre it would have a pool.  Or two, perhaps – one indoor, one outside.  The bigger and deeper the better (for deeper is faster, as I learnt this week).  Even when not in training for an epic fundraising effort, an important component of my mindfulness practice takes place under (or at least in) water.  For me, it is like coming home.  I immediately, with ease rather than effort, come into contact with my breathing and can practice to my heart’s content (usually for at least 40 minutes, without interruption, sometimes considerably longer).  The water supports and also challenges me, providing the ideal forum in which to practice.  I swim just to swim, and I swim myself back into sync.  When I swim, I feel connected – to myself, and to my senses. 
Until someone joins my lane...!  Enter the difficulty we are taught to turn towards.  In the pool, I have little option.  I do not, nor am I likely ever to, have exclusive use.  As I enjoy mid afternoon swim, so do others.  Practice is not, and never has been, reserved to times in which conditions are at their optimal.  I cannot sit around on the poolside, waiting for the other swimmers to leave the pool, though that would be lovely.  I cannot even wait for the lane to clear, though that might be nice.  I must remain focused, and renew my commitment.  I remind myself why I came.  Even a difficult swim is still a good swim (so long as I’m not kicked in the mouth by an overexcited child).  I recently had not one, or two, but three fellow swimmers.  We swam largely at the same pace, to begin with (even though I might report, with some pride, that I was pulling using my arms only for all eighty lengths) and then tiredness began to set in.  We paused, at different times, at the either end of the Pool.  The rhythm got interrupted, and our pace staggered.  Distractions come and go in any practice, the challenge is always to maintain one’s endeavour, renewing one’s intention whenever necessary. 
Using my breath as an anchor is always helpful.  It’s always there.  I can count my strokes between breaths, and concentrate on timing my breathing so that I alternate, turning to my right, and turning to my left when I come up for air, a technique known as bi-lateral breathing.  I return to my posture, and check the alignment of my ankles, knees, and hips, my spine and neck.  Swimming, in this way, is a little like a more conventional practice.  I am tuning into my body, and responding to the messages I detect, to adjust it, if I need to.  
My dry-land practices are progressing too.  In and out of water complement each other, so long as I bring the open mindedness and curiosity with me.  I am getting better at sitting still for periods of time.  Whilst I am seated for much of my working week, sitting to practice is a wholly different exercise.  For one thing, I lack a chair.  Practising several times a day (seven, to be precise: beginning the day with half an hour before breakfast, and finishing it in the same position at 9pm) certainly helps.  Here, I have the opportunity, in abundance.  There are no phones to answer, no emails requiring a response.  There is no TV, radio, or newspaper.  There really is no time like the present.  There is nothing else, either.

Walking practice presents different challenges.  Whilst I’m certainly more comfortable standing upright, than I am sat crossed legged, there are more distractions on offer.  The grounds offer a fabulous environment in which to deepen one’s practice, but their beauty can also be quite off-putting.  I have devised a way round this – I take walks (at normal pace) to absorb and appreciate the scenery in-between the practices, in order to come into contact as fully as I can (wearing shoes) with the sensations of walking.  In slowing things down, and directing my attention to the full geography of the soles of my feet, I am forced to come crashing off the bicycle I learned to ride some years ago, and re-learn how to place one foot in front of the other – lifting, shifting and placing.  Retreat-ing is hard work.


Friday, 18 May 2012

Getting Back to Basics

Stripping away the distractions of our everyday existences, a retreat provides us with an environment conducive to a deeper more concerted period for reflection and practice.  Of course, mindfulness is something that can be practised in everyday life, but it helps to establish solid foundations before trying to take on the real world. 

A retreat is a wonderful opportunity to solidify one’s practice, regardless of duration.  For those new to meditation, half a day or a day’s guided practice is a good place to start.  A weekend, or 3 day residential breaks offer a timescale during which a more sustained period of practice can take place.  A week is something to build up to, and prepare for, as I have discovered.

Broken down into its essential components, mindfulness is about becoming fully aware, in the presence moment of all our experience, without discernment.  It involves experiencing contact, feeling and perception and being able to slow down this usually automatic process, to arrest each stage, and do so knowingly, thereby potentially and profoundly altering our experience.  Without mindfulness, we are apt to jump from experience to reaction, without knowing what has prompted us to think, feel or act in the ways we do.  We form habits based on our previous experiences, which may cause us to respond inappropriately to our present circumstances, based on a set of assumptions that stem from the stories we tell ourselves. 

At the heart of meditation is an inquiry into what is true for us in each moment.  In the Insight traditions that underpin Mindfulness Meditation, we are invited to refamiliarise ourselves with the phase we all too often pass through unknowingly – where we define our experience as pleasant, unpleasant, or neither. 

This deceptively simple task is both the means and the end.  The challenge is to stop right there.  To resist adding anything to the mixture.  When we proliferate, we get into the muddy waters of conceptual chaos.  So, the invitation in short might be summarised as follows:
In the seeing, only see. 
In the hearing, only hear. 
In the perceiving, only perceive.

Gathering awareness, we make contact with sensory events – things we see, hear, or perhaps smell.  We make contact with thoughts, and with feelings.  We notice them, and acknowledge their tonal quality – whether we like, dislike, or feel indifferent.  We needn’t get swept away on the waves of thought, imagination, fantasy, historical recollection, hopes, dreams, or obsessions.  Whilst we can’t stop the tides, we can learn to surf.  Meditation is a bit like surfing – remaining on the surface, rather than falling in and getting dragged along.  

Thursday, 17 May 2012

A Wake Up Call

One of the highlights of any retreat for me is the formal teaching, or Dharma talks that take place most evenings interspersed among some post supper practices.  Considering what it is that inspired me to follow this path, and embark upon a journey I feel I have only just begun, put simply it must have been the quest for a different way.  Another way.  Not necessarily a gentler, or easier way, for I feel sure I would have come across this earlier were it either of those.  But a different way, that might lead to a different destination (and knowing that it might not).
Sometimes life wakes us up abruptly.  Like the din of an overly loud alarm clock at an unfeasibly early hour, a thoroughly unwanted interruption to that which we do most of the time – sleep.  We are awoken from our slumbers with a start, and forced to confront those things we tend to push to the back of our mind, preferring instead to pursue transitory pleasures to alleviate the tense relationship we have with reality.
According to the man now often referred to as the Buddha, there are three forms of suffering we as human beings, are apt to come across.  There is the pain of pain, related to our mortal nature and the fact that we have bodies that fail us.  We cut ourselves, we suffer with aches and pains of the physical variety.  We age, and seek assistance with our demise.  This is closely related to the pain that change causes us.  We are in flux.  Any time and all the time.  Nothing stands still.  There is no such thing as ‘I’ or ‘me’ as we are changing from moment to moment.  We lean towards the solid and the constant, but we must look far and wide, for nothing remains the same.  We seek to bolster the sense we have of ourselves through performance and acquisition – I am because I do, I am that which I have.  All this comes to nought.  The self is a verb rather than a noun – we are in the process of being ourselves.  This is hard for us to come to terms with.  We, and those we care about are here only for a finite term.
The third source of our pain is the added extra we bring to the mix.  That self inflicted suffering we cause ourselves through our hopeless attempts to deny, negate or doctor the truths of pain and impermanence.  This is where we can sit for all our lives, unless we wake up and smell the proverbial coffee.  Buddhist teachings urge us to understand the causes and conditions of our suffering, and to embrace it fully.  This is where there appears a fork in the road – we can continue to push away the unshakeable reality or learn to live more comfortably alongside that which frightens or frustrates us.

I’ve had several wake up calls in the last six months; alarms I did not set.  Without them, I might still be bumbling along, doing my own thing, half asleep.  Endings and changes beset us.  They strike at the most inopportune moments.  Just as things seem to be going well.  These are, if we choose to treat them as such, opportunities for something other than pain management and endurance.  This is our chance to grow, emotionally and psychologically.  When we awaken to the pain we face and the discomfort we feel, as we recognise our tendency to worsen matters through denial of our own fallibility, frailty and finitude and of the inevitability of suffering, frustration and dissatisfaction, this can become a springboard to different relationships, with ourselves, with others and with the world.
These harsh awakenings are times where we have two options – to be thrown into the depression that the full catastrophe of life offers us, or to begin to live life in the present, embracing life on life’s terms.  Depression or ‘living death’ stems from our refusal to accept impermanence.  We have a choice, at any point, to try another way – to give life a go, a day at a time, a moment at a time, a breath at a time.  As the author of ‘Rowing without Oars’ described in the memoir recorded in her last days before death whilst living with a terminal illness – every second is a life. 

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Getting Grounded: One Step at a Time

Being in surroundings outside of my home environment, and adopting a routine unrecognisable to my ordinary week, stirs things up.  Grist for the mill in abundance, in fact.  I realise very quickly my attachment to the known, and to the familiar, and to that over which I have some control.  Joining a group most of whom I do not know, who have come together with the sole purpose of being on a silent retreat is a strange scenario indeed.  There is something profoundly artificial about our circumstances.  Out there, in the real world, none of us pass our days and evenings in quiet contemplation.  We get on with being busy.  So here, the slowing down is more like applying the brakes hard.

The first 3 days of a retreat is said to be the hardest.  We begin to come face to face with all that we have brought with us, in addition to our bags.  As it is allowed room to surface, we are able to see with clarity that which frightens us, that which we dislike and that with which we are struggling.  Our hopes, and our fears are all brighter.  Perhaps rather too bright to begin with.  The practices offer metaphorical sunglasses, to ease the glare.  The aim is to remain in the sunshine, rather than immediately seek shade.
Meditation practice, particularly in a retreat context, is not easy.  Sitting on a cushion, wiling away the minutes and hours, can be.  But to be truly present and awake to all that we encounter requires a dedicated intention which may need be renewed along the way.  I find the walking practices have been the much needed parasol, providing comfort when things have begun to feel overwhelming.  Carefully placing one foot in front of another with the sole intention of familiarising myself with the full sensation as I do so, quite literally grounds me.  Moving up and down a short walkway that I map out for myself, over ten metres or so, enables me to experience the transitory nature of my experience moment by moment, step by step.  Thoughts come, and then go.  Feelings come, and then go.  I need not engage with anything that arises.  I pause to acknowledge and then re-engage with my practice.  I walk and I walk and I walk.          

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Beautiful Simplicity

I always enjoy returning to somewhere in which I formed happy memories.  Reconnecting with a space in which I enjoyed a peaceful yet productive week last year has been wonderful.  I am able to look back, and there is an immediate space for reflecting on what has happened between then and now.
I know my way around.  I have a different room but the corridors smell the same.  There is something of a two phase process that happens when I leave my home environment, and my ordinary routine packing and bringing with me only a few selected possessions for my sojourn.  I occupy an empty uncluttered space.  It is somehow both impersonal yet warm, and welcoming of whatever I might contain.  I like the parallel with the uncluttering of my psyche whilst becoming ever more present and accepting of whatever arises in my moment to moment experience.
My simple room facilitates reflection.  It helps me contemplate the true worth of the clutter I am apt to surround myself with.  It shatters the illusory necessity I am apt to attach to possessions.  How important is any of it, in the grand scheme of things?  Perhaps the simple life really can be the good life (at least for a week, anyway).  I have all I need.  I am here, in body, mind and spirit.  I have arrived.


Monday, 14 May 2012

Not in a retreat state of mind

I know myself well enough to know when I’m procrastinating.  Putting off.  Avoiding the inevitable.  As I pottered my way through the afternoon, I was well aware that I was delaying my journey and the beginning of my retreat.  It wasn’t calling me.  Everything else seemed to be. 
Meeting myself in this place was the kindest thing I could have done in the circumstances.  Rather than scolding myself for my lack of enthusiasm and my resultant tardiness, I responded with the kindness I would extend to a dear friend who found themselves in a similar conflict – wondering whether to retreat from the retreat. 
I knew the drill.  I picked up the phone and let a few kindred spirits who have accompanied me this far on the journey know where I was at.  They didn’t criticise, judge or condemn.  They beckoned me to come in my own time, and join them in the venture we were embarking on together, as individuals but also as a group, and a community. 
Today I have choices.  Sometimes I need to explicitly remind myself of these.  Feeling that I ought, should or God-forbid must do something or be somewhere, especially at the weekend, is likely to inspire my inner critic swiftly followed by my inner rebel.  It was important that I took the time I needed to prepare, and adjusted en route, to arrive at precisely the time I was meant to.  We all arrive at the right time...  When we’re ready. 

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Ssssh... We're meditating

The week had been in my diary since September 2010.  It got progressively closer, as time seems to pass whether I’m ready for it to or not, and then arrived.  Returning to the same venue I visited in September has highlighted the passage of time very clearly and unmistakably.  Things have changed and I guess I’ve changed, in response to them. 

As a way to spend this week of all weeks, it wouldn’t have been my first choice, but I previously committed to this, and am of the conviction that everything happens for good reason.  So, I’ve come and have brought with me, along with my yoga mat, foam blocks, cushions and blanket, a mind that is open and receptive to the process. 

It’s good being a grown up.  I have choices.  My primary responsibility this week is to listen to my body’s wisdom, and attend to its needs.  Self care is a pre requisite of any retreat.  All that is on offer is available should I wish to accept the invitation.  Guidance and insight await me, but I need not feel obligated, or duty bound.  It is not compliance that we seek to cultivate when we sit together – it’s compassion. 

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Home Time

"Nothing would keep me here" she said, blankly.  "It's home time." 

She was right.  The hands of the clocks confirmed it was indeed 5 o'clock.  And she was making her way with some purpose, down the corridor, towards the lift. 

Home time is something I can't remember being referred to as such since primary school.  Somehow, in that environment, there was never any question about it.  The bell rang, and we dispersed.  Everyone went home.  Teachers and pupils filed out of the classroom and it was, quite simply, the end of the day.  I couldn't ignore how it had struck me as odd that my colleague was so clear about the time at which she left the building.  When did home time become vague?  When did this get blurry as a concept?

Working for myself, I recognise that my working hours are somewhat flexible.  It works both ways.  I have a degree of autonomy over my hours, whilst accommodating my clients' needs as best I can.  Thinking back to my own experience of school, and how I learnt the significance of home time at junior school and registration at senior school, where it was down to me to ensure I arrived on time, I began to think about where these two lessons (possibly some of the most useful long term) had perhaps become slightly eroded over time.

In previous lives I've worked in different environments.  I'm not totally alien to those in which the proverbial jacket on chair myth exists.  Those who arrive earliest and leave latest (or, perhaps they don't leave...) are considered highly.  Where the office showers are used, and not just by cyclists.  Where deadlines are tight, and conference calls across timezones mean crazy hours.  Yeap, I've been there and done that.  Short term it can work.  Provided people are eating well and sleeping sometimes.  Longer term, it's less certain.   

Burnout is a reality.  I've seen casualties.  I hope to have supported a few who were on their way there.  Finding a balance is a serious challenge.  But one well worth undertaking to avoid 'here today, gone tomorrow' syndrome.  Taking time out before one needs to means two things: increased chances of actually enjoying one's recreation and not having to take longer periods of time due to work related stress or ill health later on.  Work smart.  Book that break. 

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Riding in Recovery

Venturing to pastures new is something I enjoy.  The long weekend called for a longer ride, and Windsor was determined to be a suitable destination.  I've been before.  I participated in the first two Palace to Palace bike rides in aid of the Prince's Trust several years ago - cycling 45 miles from London (St. James' Palace) to Windsor.  Charlotte's most welcome suggestion sounded like a good plan, and the weather looked promising.  Not great, but not bad either.  It was good to get onto the roads, and made a nice change from the circuits of the Park which, while thoroughly enjoyable and in places still pretty challenging, can get a little same-y after a while.  We rode with purpose, and maintained a decent enough average speed of about 24kph over the seventy odd kilometres we clocked up visiting Windsor, Ascot and Virginia Water before heading back via Chertsey, Weybridge and Esher.  With 3 weekends until my big swim, I'm eager to get wet, but have postponed my debut until I am in possession of a wetsuit.  In the meantime, being out and about on two wheels, getting used to the riding position over longer distances and enjoying my newly upgraded gear shifters is pleasing me no end.

The only things to overtake us today were cars.  It felt good to have broken away from the crowded Park, and to have left our carbon mounted friends to their sprints.  Today was far from slow, but I enjoyed riding steadily, and was glad I did, as we encountered a fair few inclines on our way back from Windsor.  The CycleMeter confirmed a total ascent of 240m, and some weren't all that forgiving.  Cycling is, I think, a good metaphor for life, and I have felt the benefits of experience and practice.  My increased attendance at Spin classes is paying dividends, and allows me to enjoy the ride, regardless of the terrain (within reason, of course).  For the moment, the pace matters less, and getting out and about (even in slightly dismal weather) is what counts.  The yellow lenses in my glasses helped, simulating sunshine that wasn't actually there.  I'd recommend them to anyone, and am seriously considering wearing them even out of the saddle.

I have really taken to my weekend pedalling routine, and was disappointed rain stopped play last weekend.  When I'm on the bike, little else enters my mind.  I am truly present, and focused on the road immediately ahead of me.  It strikes me as a great pastime, and has some great recovery parallels too...  Being overtaken doesn't worry me in the least.  Making progress is itself rewarding, and sustaining momentum and finding ways to retain interest and curiosity are more important than arriving quickly.  In some ways, I am more interested in endurance and distance than speed, though technique is important for both disciplines.  Above all though, I know I cycle better when I've rested well in advance of a long ride, and when I'm well prepared, having eaten properly and maintained my cardio routine during the week when my schedule makes longer rides unrealistic.  Like this weekend ride, recovery is not a quick fix and the pleasure is derived from going the distance.


Sunday, 6 May 2012

The doggy in the window

I like to think of myself as reasonably perceptive.  Someone who notices their surroundings.  He caught me by surprise.  Standing there, surveying the view in amongst the fridge-freezers, washing machines and tumble dryers.  Proud in his familiar surroundings.  Only they didn't seem to be the right ones.  The dog in the window brought a smile to my face as I reflected on how comfortable he seemed in what many might not classify as his natural environment. 

Like a fish out of water, I s'pose...

It struck me that many of us occupy surroundings that perhaps don't immediately make sense.  We confuse those who encounter us.  We take them by surprise.  We challenge their assumptions.  The dog reminded me that it matters very little what others think, if we ourselves are comfortable in our own skin, going about our business.  Life has a funny habit of taking us to places we might not have previously envisaged for ourselves, but we go.  Later explanation to bystanders as to how we got where we find ourselves to be seems to be quite another matter. 

Friday, 4 May 2012

The Good Life kept Good

The Bank Holiday feels well deserved.  It's been a while since Easter, and the weather seems to have barely changed since the middle of winter.  It's cold and gloomy, and the un-Spring like conditions have been remarked upon in my consulting room countless times in recent weeks.  The rain feels relentless and drizzle terribly dreary.  I am beginning to sound terribly British, aren't I? 

Rain didn't stop play earlier in the week, and I managed another medium length bicycle ride in Richmond Park.  40k or so, in slightly below average conditions.  I like to think I go faster when my tyres are wet.  Unfortunately, our company was distinctly enthusiastic, and there were some smart machines out there.  A different crowd to the Sunday brunch bunch.  These guys were serious.  I saw their teeth.

Some of us don't seem to have an innate 'off' button.  I know I tend to fidget.  I'm restless, and am happiest when I'm busy, ticking things off a list.  I'm a great 'do-er'.  I get things done and it pleases me.  But I have had to learn and then refine the skill of slowing down, and switching off.  I need my energy and recognise its finitude.  There are, of course, things I can do to replenish the reserves short-term, but there comes a time when I need to rest.  I'm thankful for the reminders I get from my supervisor, a therapist with over a quarter of a century's experience, who asks me like a mantra "...and when's your next break?"  I need to know the answer.  It's important.  I don't want to burn out.

Compassion fatigue is a well documented tragedy amongst our profession.  I practice what I preach when it comes to self care, and seek to model my remedies.  There is nothing like a live advertisement.  I'm far from perfect, but life's taught me some valuable lessons including self preservation.  In order to have anything worthwhile to offer those I work with, I have a responsibility to prioritise self care. 

"The mark of a successful (wo)man is one that has spent an entire day on the bank of a river without feeling guilty about it."

"No one can get inner peace by pouncing on it."
Harry Emerson Fosdick

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Preparing to Emerge

He flew.  Gliding through the water, and then flying above it.  As somewhat of a keen swimmer (gross understatement), for me, there is something magical about watching a fellow water buddy who has perfected the art of butterfly.  I can gaze in awe for quite some time, as I did today.  Staring.  Motionless, appreciating the rythm and easy efficiency of someone who clearly knows what they are doing.  Unconscious competence.  His identity remains a mystery as we did not speak, but exchanged knowing smiles at several points during the hour we spent as neighbours in adjoining lanes.  One of my goals this year is to get some further tuition.  I will be returning for a swimming lesson, specifically to learn to fly.  

The 'Butterfly'

Right now, however, my training is somewhat less glamorous and distinctly front crawl focused.  I am building up my stamina in anticipation of the mile long stretch that awaits me in less than a month's time.  I will not have the luxury of a lane to myself.  There will be no lanes.  I will be surrounded by other mad open water wetsuit clad swimmers, and will do well to avoid swallowing vast quantities of the Thames.  But swim my best I will.  Each time I enjoy a pool session, I remind myself that it will be so very different on Saturday 26 May.  I will not have a nice stainless steel wall from which to push off every 25m.  There will be no walls.  I will have only buoys indicating the course, and hundreds of arms, and feet, to contend with.  I am feeling both excited and daunted by the prospect.  I cannot deny the inspiration, motivation and determination I feel as I anticipate the challenge I have committed to, nearly £1500 of sponsorship serves as a proud reminder of why I'm doing this, and the spirit in which I'm doing it.  My wetsuit is on its way.