Saturday, 28 July 2012

The D Word: Ruby's (not so) Mad Confessions

It had been in my diary for several weeks, and I was looking forward to seeing Ruby Wax's expose of the enduring stigma associated with mental health.  Rather like limescale that won't shift, or if it does, does so only temporarily, I feel that every opportunity to oust the skeletons from our metaphorical closets is to be celebrated.  So I sat up and listened.  I was moved by her honesty, and that of her family whom together presented a very real portrayal of their experience living alongside clinical depression, whether one's own, or that of someone you love.
"There is no manual that tells us how to live, we have to make it up as we go along."

Alongside our shared belief in the efficacy of mindfulness practice in everyday life as an approach that has the power to stop depression (and a host of other difficulties) in its tracks, it is Ruby's commitment to the cause of breaking down the taboo that surrounds our mental health that resonated somewhere deep inside.  It has gone unspoken about for too long.  With devastating consequences.  People carry enormous shame for having diagnoses and taking prescriptions that are now household names, yet seldom acknowledged by the community who seem to wish to see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil. 

Our wonderfully evolved minds plague us with problems that our reptilian ancestors would never have lost sleep over.  We desperately try to think our way out of difficulties and come up against the biggest of cognitive brick walls, adding to our despair and aggravating a deep sense of isolation.  1 in 4.  It's a staggering statistic for this is a hidden population.  Shame too often keeps us silent.     
"This disease comes with a package: shame. 
When any other part of your body gets sick you get sympathy."

Just as no one wanted to acknowledge the dreaded 'C' word until we realised we could ignore it no longer, the 'D' word remains contraband in many environments.  Ruby ingeniously highlighted the potential impact that disclosure of mental health issues in the workplace, but found three professionals whom were met with favourable responses (the cameras might have helped?)  Working in the field I do, I am all too aware that this is not always the way.  I doubt it's yet the norm. 

Whilst society proudly claims equal opportunities, when it comes to matters of the mind, employers all too often freak out withdrawing what little support they might be able to offer when it matters most - when someone has taken the often daunting step of approaching the issue, and in doing so exposed an aspect of themselves that might not otherwise be available. 

"Mental illness is a disease like diabetes, it cannot just be wished away."

Stigma and ignorance are intertwined.  Too little is understood by those who hold an important Duty of Care.  Too often there is a deficit of care and even less sense of duty that carries with it a responsibility - in sickness and in health.  If there is any madness in the situation, it is surely located here, rather than with those addressing their mental well being.   

Visit Ruby's website:

Thursday, 26 July 2012

A is for Alive

Getting out on my bike and riding a few circuits of the park recently provided much needed reprieve.  After a long, hot and sticky day too much of which felt to have been spent in the four walls of my not at all air conditioned room (thank goodness for the rickety little fan that worked wonders), getting out into the expanse of beauty that is Richmond Park was exactly what both my mind and body needed.  And I was in good company.  There were quite a few fellow cyclists in either direction, enjoying the warmth of the sunshine, the beautiful views and the incredible sense of spaciousness the experience of which usually necessitates a far longer journey.

I clocked up a fair few miles on my beloved single speed that evening and again the following day, when I returned for a rather more solitary cycle.  What I lacked in gear, I made up for in sheer enthusiasm, breathing in the fresh air, and enjoying my rather serene pace.  (I still managed to hit a top speed of 33.8mph!)  The tips Charlotte shared with me on a recent mini session were invaluable and I am noticing that the spin classes are paying dividends.  My stamina has greatly increased, meaning that my recovery has shrunk, enabling me to enjoy more of my ride.  I dug in hard where it counted, and was able to hold my own against the best of them (excluding perhaps our friends on carbon bikes against which my dear old commuter does not really stand a chance.) 

Competition probably isn't my destiny on two wheels, and my riding is more about pleasure than prowess.  Above all, my evening ride was a great reminder of what it's like to feel fully alive, and to embrace and engage fully with such precious moments.   

Monday, 23 July 2012

Freedom through Acceptance

I was so surprised when she proudly told us that she didn't think she had ever let go of a single thing.  Confused too.  I had jumped to a conclusion that her serenity was a by-product of a life well lived guided by infinite wisdom.  I had, in short, elevated her to an untenably high position, sitting atop a pedestal, far removed from us mere mortals who sat in front of her listening to the Dharma talk she was giving. 

She went on to explain...  Living more comfortably involves letting be, rather than letting go.  It is about living differently alongside that which we cannot control.  She described the museums of our minds, in which we need to create a different climate by not feeding those unhelpful thoughts that often plague us.  By letting it all be there, simply as it is, we need not identify with it.

There is a paradox inherent in all this - the more aversive we feel towards anything, be it a thought, a feeling, a mood, a mind state, or a sensation, the more we seek to avoid it, the more sticky, and present it becomes, with a far greater likelihood of sticking around.  The harder we push, the harder we will have to push, until we have no push left.  What we resist, persists.  What we let be, will flee (though not necessarily in our desired time frame)... 

(The other cited guru was none other than Christina Feldman,
a doyenne of insight meditation and co-founder of Gaia House.)

Friday, 20 July 2012

A night in front of the box

The beginnings of a slight snuffle put heed to my usual routine, and provided impetus for an evening more-or-less in front of the television.  This being somewhat of an unusual occurrence, I found myself rather awestruck by my viewing experience which, whilst comprising an apparently odd combination, seemed to possess a bit of a theme - that of resilience.

Starting with none other than the awesome Victoria Pendleton:  Cycling's Golden Girl.  Golden by name, and well deserved given her credentials, but as I watched I found myself feeling increasingly concerned for this inspirational young woman who has anything but a sunny disposition and showed signs of being deeply troubled throughout the excellent documentary. 

Her struggle would appear to have been lifelong and is against the toughest possible opponent:  herself.  Her longstanding rivalry with Anna Meares pales into insignificance against the battle she has with herself, each and every day.  Beneath her stunning smile lurks a terrifyingly harsh inner critic, with infinitely destructive tendencies.  At different times, this horrific force has been given fuel, and Victoria seems to lack the motivation to win first and foremost for herself: motivation vital to both be good at and enjoy being good at her sport. 

I found myself wondering what it must have been like to be separated from her twin brother by two wheels and a carbon frame, and to have attained the status of being the fastest woman on earth.  Warning bells rung on hearing her disclose that she felt nothing at all when she won at Beijing.  Throughout the programme, I wondered where Mum featured in the family dynamics, in which the passion for cycling seemed practically infectious.  What I saw on screen was a woman desperately in need of a break, and a hug. 

The so-called defiant and emotional maverick is something of a conundrum both on and off the track.  She arrived at British Cycling when it was all about the boys, but sought to retain her femininity.  I dread to think what prompted the addition of her brilliant psychiatrist, but thank goodness he came on board when he did.  We women are emotional.  Even when super-fit and super-fast.  Get over it.  Perhaps when she's on the bike, Victoria's determination differs from the average performance athlete's and her focus becomes so sharp that she effectively dissociates.  This might go some way to explaining the apparent absence of any affect or emotion immediately after finishing (and usually winning) a race.  This gem is both rare and extremely precious, and requires very careful handling. 

Next on was Supersize vs. Superskinny Channel 4's series which depicts two individuals who self identify as being from either end of the eating spectrum.  Rob and Hayley both check in to the so-called Feeding Clinic, and access intensive multidisciplinary support for their food disorders from the loud-shirted Dr. Christian Jessen and his team.  Having not watched an episode from start to finish, I was glued to the programme which saw both patients make significant progress.  Importantly, a holistic approach was adopted, and their relationships with food were looked at very closely - both cases of disordered eating being seen as symptoms rather than the whole problem.  It was encouraging to see an intervention designed so thoroughly around the individuals' presentations, and implemented so well, from serious reality checks to psychotherapeutic support to catalyse and then sustain life enhancing and identity altering change for the patients, both of whom could be seen to have reached the point of despair from which they were willing to put in the work to turn their eating around.   

The final component of my television hat trick was another Channel 4 production, One Born Every Minute:  Insights into the Reality of Birth.  There was no shortage of reality in the humbling footage that followed the delightful Tricia who, after many rounds of IVF, had conceived naturally and was preparing to give birth to her first child Elizabeth, whom we met at the end of the episode.  The maternity team were blinding, but it was the intuitive maternal nature that stood out watching Tricia bond with her newborn moments after the forceps delivery.  We later saw parents caring for baby at home several weeks later, and it was a joy to behold Tricia making up formula for Elizabeth, being the best Mum she can be, in spite of her disability.   

Three very different yet each brilliantly powerful examples of human courage, and determination to overcome obstacles.  All in a night's viewing.   

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Where do you live?

Working for oneself has its pros and cons.  One of the challenges is finding the balance.  There is a time to work, and there is a time to not work.  Confusion about this seems prevalent amongst a particular demographic, and I have found myself thinking about the so-called work-life balance, and that oh so fine line that can at times seem dotted, or blurred. 

There are those for whom this might make no sense at all.  An alien concept that can relate to not in the least.  But for many others, this is a serious issue.  Burnout is all too real, and must be taken seriously if it is to be avoided. 

Many of us have become acclimatised to unhealthy levels of compulsive working, accomplishing and 'should-ing' with possible physical, emotional, social and environmental consequences.  As individuals, and as a collective, we are hitting the ceiling in terms of the amount of stress that we can handle.  Most of the major illnesses of our generation are stress related to one degree or another.  Also, our environment is showing signs of excessive wear and tear.  Excessive stress is the result of pushing too hard, over-running our physical and environmental coping resources and then reaching a point of exhaustion. 

So, is work catching up with you?  Where are you spending most of your time?  With friends, or in front of your emails?  Has the office become something of a second home?  When was the last time you left on time, or better still, early?  Do you know when your next break will be? 

Compulsive doing might also be called workaholism, "hurry sickness", Type-A Behaviour, or perfectionism.  Compulsive doing has similar traits and comprises the tendency to do what we think we should do instead of what we choose to do.  Compulsive doing is a lifestyle in which the demands of our environment gradually take precedence over our internal feelings, needs, and responses.  In the end, compulsive "shoulds" take over and we lose our ability to be spontaneous and uninhibited.  In a sense our life gets turned inside out so that what is external to us becomes more important that what is internal.

One of the most obvious ways to tell whether you're over doing it is to look to see if the activity and lifestyle we are involved in is coming out of a sense of choicefulness, or a sense of goal-oriented drivenness.  Many of us have the idea that life is filled with things that we need to get done.  The truth is that at its essence, life is entirely optional.  Ultimately, if you think about it, we don't even have to stay alive if we don't want to.  Yet so many of us live as if everything we get into is a should.

To recover our power of being, we first need to acknowledge the possibility of choicefulness in our life.  The difficult truth is that even the most valuable task or endeavour loses it's inherent worth when done without a true sense of desire and spontaneity.  Even things that are supposed to be "recreational", or just for "fun" can become part of the problem.  There are many stressed-out "playaholics" out there with piles of toys and no sense of being.

The stress from a work dominated lifestyle can lead to irritability and affect you and those around you.  One of the most important stages of addressing the issue, is to understand it better.  Why has work assumed such significance?  What is the pay off? 

To complete the following sentences with honesty, open mindedness and willingness might expose some home truths:

“If I give up working so much, I’m afraid that…”

“I need to work as much as I do because…”

Keep repeating these sentences, until you are arriving at no new endings.
When you are finished, you may want to write down some of the sentences that felt strongest.

Become very clear about what it would look like for you to be working at the level you want to be.  Get a good picture before moving on. Write down what you learn.

Now imagine being there in that reality.
You are working at the level you want to be, and see it very clearly.
Spend a moment allowing it to feel very real.
Notice if there is anything that feels unwelcome about this reality.
Spend some time with this experience before moving on.
Write down what you learn.

Still imagining yourself working considerably less than you do now...
Try saying, “I refuse to work less because…” and let the sentence finish itself.

Now imagine a recent situation in which you were working compulsively and felt powerless to stop. Once you are there, name how you feel in your body.  Try saying, “I cannot let myself stop working right now because…” and let the sentence finish itself.

 Stay in that scene of working compulsively, and try saying “Right now I am afraid that…”
and let the sentence finish itself without pre-thinking an ending.
You can change the sentence-stem to make it fit for you.
Keep trying this sentence completion a few more times.
Write down anything that felt particularly strong.

Having gone through the above steps, you may feel as though you have found a part of yourself that you didn't know existed.  You may have discovered that your working patterns actually serve an important purpose for you.  It is important not to turn this part of yourself into an enemy, but rather make peace with it and let it become a friend.  You can do this by not trying to change it, but instead just accepting it and letting it be true. 
It may be useful to set aside some time each day to revisit the learnings, which may become a platform from which you can seek alternative support, from family, friends, or through self-help or therapy. 

For every thing there is a season, and a time for every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;
A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
A time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them;
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain;
A time to search, and a time to give up;
A time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
A time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate;
A time for war, and a time for peace.
From Ecclesiastes 3

So...  which side of the line do you find yourself?

The list making that many of us do is a good example of the difference between healthy choicefulness and compulsive doing.  The critical questions is "Do I own my list, or does it own me?"  Lots of us make lists of things that we want to do.  The problem comes when that list becomes only a means to an end rather than an expression of our internal process of selecting options for what we would like to do and what feels most important to us.  In so doing we externalise that list and give it a power over us that it shouldn't have.

The answer to compulsive doing is healthy being.  Healthy being is a way of living in the world.  It is entirely experiential and different for every individual.  The critical aspect of healthy being is what has been described as "spontaneous disinhibition."  The world is constantly calling us to do, be, or say what we "should."  Many of us feel guilty, or fearful about facing down those external shoulds and saying, "No. This is who I need to be. I have a right to choose. I have a right to be here."  When we take up that challenge, we get ourselves onto the road of healthy being.

What can help us to make this jump from doing to being is the awareness that even a lifetime of material success and good works pales when compared to even a few hours of true beingness.  When we are brave enough to face down our shoulds we make a contribution to the world that is as real as it is difficult to measure.  When you think of the people who have most influenced your life or those you have felt most loved by, it is likely you will find that they had a strong quality of being about them.  When we are into our beingness, wonderful things begin to happen to us and around us and other people benefit either directly or indirectly.

'Healthy being' isn't a destination that you "get" to.  Being is a quality which is already inside all of us right this moment.  It is innate.  We are born with it.  The real task, the journey, is about getting beneath the layers of compulsivity and denial of self which we build around us.  When we do, our power of being naturally emerges for us to cultivate and expand.  There are a plethora of self-help books advocating the introduction of yet another thing.  The solution might instead come from within.  What you really need to be at peace with this life is inside you all the time.  It's a question of discovery and uncovery so to speak.

Some tried and tested tools for addressing compulsive overworking:

Decide which are the most important things to do first.
Sometimes that may mean doing nothing.
Strive to stay flexible to events, reorganising priorities as needed. 
View interruptions and accidents as opportunities for growth.

Do not add a new activity without eliminating from your schedule one that demands equivalent time and energy.

Allow more time than you think necessary for a task or trip, allowing a comfortable margin to accommodate the unexpected.

Schedule time for play, refusing to let yourself work non-stop.
Do not make play into a work project.

Seek to do one thing at a time.

Work at a comfortable pace and rest before getting tired.
Check energy levels before approaching the next activity.
By not getting "wound up" in work, there is no need to unwind.

Do not yield to pressure from others or attempt to pressure others.
Remain alert to the people and situations that trigger feelings of pressure in us.
Become aware of our own actions, words, body sensations and feelings that tell us we are responding with pressure.
When energy feels to be building up, stop; we reconnect with our intention and with others around us.

Accept the outcomes of our endeavours, whatever the results, whatever the timing.
Impatience, rushing and insisting on perfect results only slow down our recovery.
Be gentle with your efforts, knowing that this new way of living requires much practice.

Admit weaknesses and mistakes.
We don't have to do everything ourselves, and can ask others for help.

Balance involvement in work with efforts to develop personal relationships, spiritual growth, creativity and playful attitudes.

Living in the Now 
Realise that you are exactly where you are meant to be - in the here and now.
Try to live each moment with serenity, joy and gratitude.

Monday, 16 July 2012

And so, Cinderella, you shall go to the Ball...

Invitations were sent out many months ago following Chris’ famous proposal having completed his Atlantic crossing.  As big sister, Charlotte was to have an important part in proceedings.  And nothing could get in the way of that.  Not even breast cancer.  Least of all breast cancer.

Out of our adversity, our strength is garnered and becomes realised.  The last seven months have comprised something of a rollercoaster.  Time has taken on a whole new dimension.  Life is not what it was.  It is precious.  It is sacred.  Emotions are not what they were.  They have been intensified, amplified, and are suddenly very real and very loud. 

And that’s just from my perspective...  Looking through the window I do.  This story has no ugly sisters, but there is a destructive alien that has had to be put in its place which has taken more than a few fairy godmothers. 

Thankfully, Charlotte is not short of fairy godmothers.  And her would-be Buttons is well up to the job.  This weekend they boarded their own pumpkin (leaving the trusty tandem at home) and travelled to celebrate her sister’s big day.  Nothing could stop her.  Not even breast cancer.  Least of all breast cancer.  Whilst this is far from a fairytale, there is much happiness to be discerned, if we take time to look around us. 

"Even miracles take a little time"
Cinderella's Fairy Godmother

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Made in Chelsea

It seems that the protracted inclement weather might well be stirring up kindnesses where one would least expect to find them.  Like Starbucks, for instance.  Yes, the notoriously commercialised wouldn't-piss-on-you-if-you-were-on-fire coffeehouse has a heart.  Or so I heard recently.  This story touched me, as a reminder that, just occasionally, humanity prevails.  Even in Chelsea...

So, on her way to a meeting a dear friend of mine now drenched having been caught without umbrella and dressed for summer (that apparently missing season you'd be forgiven for forgetting we usually have between spring and autumn), is excited to discover that Starbucks is still open.

Well, just.  It was a couple of minutes after 7 o'clock in the evening, but the barista welcomed her and took her order.  A double shot soy Macchiato.  After much fumbling in her overly large and overly full handbag, said friend realises that she has in fact left her wallet at home on the kitchen table having spent much of the afternoon trawling through her expenses. 

Coffee made, and standing with her name on it (literally, given that they now seem to insist upon defying anonymity and one has to conjure up pseudonyms quicker than one can utter Mocha Cookie Crumble Frappuccino).  No money with which to pay for delightfully hot caffeine filled beverage.

A brief dialogue took place between unfeasibly smiley barista (doubtless eager to rip off her green apron and free her tresses from the hairnet), during which the contents of my friend's Mary Poppins style handbag have been offered, by way of collateral.

No IOU was issued.  Not so much as a second thought was given.  The coffee was hers, and she could come in and pay for it tomorrow.  Sometimes gems are to be found in the most unlikely of places.  Like pearls, I s'pose.  This brought a smile to my face, and a gentle lift to my spirits when, at the end of a long and otherwise somewhat unforgiving week, someone did something that is, today, in this metropolis at least, quite out of the ordinary.  Now, what shall I call myself next time I descend upon the chain that boasts over 15,000 stores in an expanding empire that spans 50 countries which sprang from an unassuming shop that opened in Seattle in 1971?  Mine's a Berry Hibiscus Refresha (the new drink containing green coffee extract without the coffee taste...  Well, we can imagine it's summer, can't we?)

Starbucks' mission is to inspire and nurture the human spirit
 - one person, one cup, and one neighbourhood at a time.


Thursday, 12 July 2012

Epic: A new take on the Amazing Spider Man (2012)

The IMAX with its brand new 20x26m screen was the perfect venue to see the brilliantly breath taking brand new Spider Man (in 3D).  It was as though we were in the movie, rather than at the movies.  I loved it.  Every minute.  All 136 of them. 

The pro cast were fantastic.  As a Spider Man virgin, I was thrilled to get introduced to the characters and be privy to some background.  How Peter Parker (played by Andrew Garfield) became Spider Man (well perhaps Spider Boy, more accurately)...

Watching him come up against Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), his father's former partner whom one suspects knows more than he's letting on about the fate of Peter's father, I thought that the monster he becomes (something of a giant lizard that would not be out of place in Jurassic Park) bore many of the hallmarks of someone in active addiction.

Addicted to power perhaps.  Entirely focused on destruction at any cost.  In Dr. Connors it was possible to see the progressive nature of addiction, transforming and rotting his intention and ultimately his character. 

Brilliance, bordering on genius is, in my experience, far from rare amongst addictive personalities.  The shame of it is the way in which such creativity is channelled, fuelling only the addiction and causing the addict to plummet into an ever deeper abyss of devastation and destruction. 

We even saw him injecting.  More and more.  Tirelessly chasing the effects he craved.  Becoming unstoppable.  An addict will go to any lengths to protect their habit.  This is all too real a reality for many addicts whom become almost unrecognisable in the grips of their addiction.  Transformed, from the inside out, and not in a good way.

It wasn't a pretty sight.  The CGI graphics have received some criticism, but were plenty scary enough for this moviegoer.  Watching the monster thrashing about was, at times, rather more terrifying than a 12A would suggest. 

From the dizzy heights of the Shard-like tower which is home to Connors' lab, we see the mad scientist (and maybe addict) cause mayhem and chaos in his mission to conquer the world.  But if the problem is really one of addiction, what might Spider Man represent...? 

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Waking up - all over again

Just occasionally, I nod off.  I think we probably all do.  I catch myself, and I'm awake once again.  From a Buddhist perspective, we spend much of our lifetime sleepwalking.  The awakened state is fleeting, and there is somewhat of a cycle as we awaken, and return to our slumbers.  Which is not to say that those waking moments are not precious.  The life well lived is a series of those moments in which we are fully awake.  The more of these we can string together, the better.  Noticing when we've drifted off is the starting point. 

Discussing the development and sustaining of my practice recently, a further parallel between this and recovery generally dawned on me.  Just as with my practice, I maintain close proximity to my recovery program, whatever the weather.  Good days and bad days.  I practice, meditation and I practice, my program.  These are non negotiables.  Just like brushing my teeth, really.

I am a creature of habit, and thrive best in a routine.  I have developed my routine, and adapted it along the way, tweaking it to accommodate new inclusions and dropping others.  Sticking to structure is not always easy.  There are temptations and distractions aplenty.  Discipline is a daily practice.  And it starts with my intention.

Just as at the beginning of a meeting, there is usually a moment of silence, a space in which we can reconnect with the reasons that brought us into the room in the first place, I find myself reconnecting with the purpose behind my practice.  Why am I here?  Why do I do this?

Re-connecting with my intention gives me an opportunity to renew it.  There is no coincidence I find myself engaged with a meditation practice, just like I didn't get into recovery by accident.  I'm not engaged in an intellectual exercise, enquiry or experiment; I'm here because I need to be.  For me, my meditation has become a part of my recovery.  The two are bound and reinforce one another.  But each require my time, energy and attention.         

Sunday, 8 July 2012


I love those little reminders that all is well.  That I am exactly where I am meant to be.  I have heard it said that there is no such thing as coincidence.  Einstein said that coincidence is God's way of remaining anonymous.  Well, whoever is writing the script, or directing the screenplay, I feel as though I'm in safe hands. 

Right place, right time...  It certainly was.  Bumping into an old friend was exactly what I needed.  Subsequently catching up over supper was well overdue.  It reminded me that people come and go in one's life, but onto a few you should hold on.  Those who know us when we're growing up hold something very precious, that becomes all the more dear the older we get. 

Baz Luhrmann put it so well in his epic 'Everybody's Free (to wear sunscreen)'...

Ladies and Gentlemen of the class of ’99
If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be
it.  The long term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by
scientists whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable
than my own meandering
experience…  I will dispense this advice now.  Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth; oh nevermind; you will not
understand the power and beauty of your youth until they have faded.
But trust me, in 20 years you’ll look back at photos of yourself and
recall in a way you can’t grasp now how much possibility lay before
you and how fabulous you really looked….  You’re not as fat as you
imagine.  Don’t worry about the future; or worry, but know that worrying is as
effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing
bubblegum.  The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that
never crossed your worried mind; the kind that blindside you at 4pm
on some idle Tuesday.  Do one thing everyday that scares you.  Sing.  Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts, don’t put up with
people who are reckless with yours.  Floss.  Don’t waste your time on jealousy; sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes
you’re behind…the race is long, and in the end, it’s only with
yourself.  Remember the compliments you receive, forget the insults; if you
succeed in doing this, tell me how.  Keep your old love letters, throw away your old bank statements. Stretch.  Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your
life…  the most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they
wanted to do with their lives, some of the most interesting 40 year
olds I know still don’t.  Get plenty of calcium.  Be kind to your knees, you’ll miss them when they’re gone.  Maybe you’ll marry, maybe you won’t, maybe you’ll have children, maybe
you won’t, maybe you’ll divorce at 40, maybe you’ll dance the funky
chicken on your 75th wedding anniversary…  what ever you do, don’t
congratulate yourself too much or berate yourself either – your
choices are half chance, so are everybody else’s.  Enjoy your body,
use it every way you can…  don’t be afraid of it, or what other people
think of it, it’s the greatest instrument you’ll ever
own.  Dance…  even if you have nowhere to do it but in your own living room.  Read the directions, even if you don’t follow them.  Do NOT read beauty magazines, they will only make you feel ugly. Get to know your parents, you never know when they’ll be gone for
good.  Be nice to your siblings; they are the best link to your past and the
people most likely to stick with you in the future. 
Understand that friends come and go,but for the precious few you
should hold on.  Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and
lifestyle because the older you get, the more you need the people you
knew when you were young. 
Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard; live
in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft.  Travel.  Accept certain inalienable truths:  prices will rise, politicians will
philander, you too will get old, and when you do you’ll fantasize
that when you were young prices were reasonable, politicians were
noble and children respected their elders.  Respect your elders.  Don’t expect anyone else to support you.  Maybe you have a trust fund,
maybe you have a wealthy spouse; but you never know when either one
might run out.  Don’t mess too much with your hair, or by the time you're 40, it will
look 85.  Be careful whose advice you buy, but, be patient with those who
supply it.  Advice is a form of nostalgia, dispensing it is a way of
fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the
ugly parts and recycling it for more than
it’s worth.  But trust me on the sunscreen…

There's plenty in there.  All of it relevant today.  Except, perhaps, the sunscreen.   

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Saying Hello to Goodbye

"What we call the beginning is often the end.  And to make an end is to make a beginning.  The end is where we start from." 
T. S. Eliot

It's that time, again.  Being somewhat of a perennial student this time of year means a number of things - exams, deadlines, and endings.  Not necessarily all three, and not always in that order.  This summer marks the end of a two year postgraduate program of study, for which I attended the final teaching block last week.  The experience of being part of a group is far from new.  The experience of being part of that particular group was novel. 

Endings are funny things.  They sound so straightforward, but tend not to be.  Ever got to the final chapter of a book and found yourself slowing down, extending it, not wanting it to finish?  Finishing can be tricky.  I have experience of this from both sides of the room - as a client, and as a therapist.  I've run from endings, I've avoided them, tried to ignore them, attempted to pretend they weren't happening.  I've reframed endings, preferring to think of them as breaks.  I've sabotaged endings.

Change is challenging.  We resist it.  We balk against it.  To turn up for an ending can be taxing, and even terrifying.  In every ending, is a reminder of every other ending.  There are hallmarks - how we 'do' or don't do endings.  Therapy is an opportunity to do something different, and in so doing resolve those previous endings that may have felt somehow incomplete, or unsatisfactory. 

Running away from an ending can often signal our reluctance to let go of something, someone or a space we have held precious.  When we don't work the process through, we are left with something unresolved, from which it is often difficult to move on.  We leave ourselves suspended, and so in limbo.  We miss out as we deny ourselves something special and important.  We deprive ourselves of an experience that confirms we can survive through change, whether invited or enforced. 

Endings are inevitable.  That doesn't make them any easier.  We experience change, whether we like it or not.  Daily.  Moment to moment we are enduring constant change.  This is perhaps at the root of our discomfort.  Formalised and formatted farewells give us the opportunity to reflect on our relationship with change, and provide us with an opportunity to take a step in the right direction. 

"Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending."
Maria Robinson

Monday, 2 July 2012

Tales with Tails

If you can start the day without caffeine
If you can sit quietly after difficult news
If, in financial downturns, you remain perfectly calm
If you can be cheerful, ignoring aches and pains
If you can resist complaining and boring people with your troubles
If you can see your neighbours travel to fantastic places without a twinge of jealousy
If you can happily accept whatever is put on your plate
If you can understand when loved ones are too busy to give you time
If you can overlook when people take things out on you when, through no fault of yours, something goes wrong
If you can take criticism and blame without resentment
If you can face the world without lies and deceit
If you can conquer tension without medical help
If you can eat the same food everyday and be grateful for it
and fall asleep after a day of running around without a drink or a pill
If you can always find contentment just where you are...

...You're probably a dog!

A friend's wirehaired dachshund provided much delight on a recent visit to see him, and his family.  Saxon, having been joined by Norman, a young black lab puppy with boundless energy, has demonstrated to all around him the true spirit of equanimity... 

My Buddhist teacher translated an ancient text from the 14th Century as follows, to demonstrate the relationship between equanimity and other wholesome qualities:

Out of the soil of friendliness (metta)
Grows the beautiful bloom of compassion (karuna)
Watered by the tears of joy (mudita)
Sheltered under the cool shade
Of the tree of equanimity. (upekka)

Equanimity has been something I've found myself giving a lot of thought to recently.  Watching Saxon, I was reminded of something I know to be true but for whatever reason, am apt to forget - that there can be moments in our life amidst all the swirlings of joys and sorrows, that we can find glimpses of true stillness. 

This stillness takes us by surprise.  Often, when we least expect it, we find ourselves experiencing moments in which we cease striving.  We come to simply be.  For much of our lifetime, we are consumed with planning, and fixing, and doing.  It is in these precious moments of stillness, that we are able to catch sight of equanimity.

I have heard equanimity described as unshakeable balance and stillness.  A spacious stillness of mind, a radiant calm, and inner poise.  What distinguishes equanimity however is the fact that this unshakeable balance is not removed or distant from life.  Quite the opposite - it is in no way dependent upon life being muted, or subdued.  It is to be found within our life, and within our willingness to meet all aspects of our life and our experience.

Equanimity is active, rather than passive.  It asks a lot of us - to meet all of our experience with equal respect is a tall order.  It requires that we put aside ideas about being for or against, right or wrong, good or bad, that we surrender cycles and avenues of avoidance and pursuit, of seeking and denial, giving each and every aspect of our experience respect in equal measure. 

To embody equanimity, is to be still and open in the midst of suffering in our world, meeting life without fear and without resistance, laying aside some of our ideas about what should be and what shouldn't be.  Great things come to pass when we are able to cultivate this quality - as we find ourselves able to listen, to the story of another, and to the story of life.  As a therapist, I actively seek to adopt and sustain this stance, to ensure the qualities of receptivity and listening - the twin pillars of compassion.  I seek to calm my own, inner, story which may at any time hold history, fear and prejudice - in order to be calm, and become still to hear better the story that life tells as it unfolds.