Friday, 25 October 2013

Heroic humility: meeting Elizabeth Gilbert

She was brilliant.  She is brilliant.
Utterly brilliant.
I had not expected such a nourishing evening.  The Queen Elizabeth Hall has become something of a hot destination for me in recent weeks, having seen two excellent dance performances, and this evening met the charming (and brilliant) Elizabeth Gilbert.

She was effortlessly poised in a way that only someone who has really been there (and worked her way through it) could be.  
"Stop wearing your wishbone where your backbone ought to be." - Eat, Pray, Love

Without much help from her interviewer with whom she shared the platform, she described her journey, starting as a journalist with a heart who knew she was destined to write fiction.

And funny too.  Really funny.  I'd almost forgotten how amusing 'Eat, Pray, Love' was.  I'm tempted to dust off my copy, with it's dog eared pages, and re-read it.  

She spoke about how she wrote her way out of the perplexities thrown up by the depression she surrendered into following her nasty divorce.  Autobiography was the only option at that point, Gilbert explained that she couldn't invent drama whilst living drama - so she got a book deal.

And the book deal was her ticket around the world - on a mission to heal.  Nothing about 'Eat, Pray, Love' was a foregone conclusion - she quit a well paid job to write the book, and threw all she had into doing so.  As she got on the plane she carried in her heart all those on whose behalf she felt she was making the journey.  Before eating enough pizza for all of them!

Having travelled for business, for pleasure, for romance, and for adventure this was different.  This was a quest.  And every quest should be in the service of a specific question.  Hers was 'How can I recover the very important aspects of myself that I've lost in the last 8 years?'

Emerging from the grips of depression, where, as anyone who has ever had the dubious pleasure of meeting melancholia will know, the world becomes sawdust, she felt devoid of anything that had ever meant anything to her.  Thus, hers was to be a year of eating, praying and then loving...  reacquainting with hitherto lost pleasure, reconnecting with devotion and then finding a balance of the two.  To identify her destinations, she simply asked herself where it was that seemed to do these things well...  Italy - India - Bali.

She learnt about what she wrote through total immersion.  

...And found her second husband in the process.  Not that she was looking.  Which presented something of a puzzle, both emotionally, and as a writer:  how should she tell him what it was that she was doing?  When is the right time to tell someone that you're writing a book about everything that happens to them, when they already seem to feature prominently?  Her reassurance when he asked what it might entail, that he shouldn't worry as 'no one reads my books, anyway!' sealed her success.

And she's been a hit ever since.  Well, not quite.  A book like that takes two years to edit.  

"Happiness is the consequence of personal effort.  You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it.  You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings."

And here was the poise.  The success she earned through the book couldn't have come at a better time for Gilbert.  As she wrote the book she was far enough out of the dark to see the light.  The repetitiveness, wherein the book opens at the same page every day, which characterises a depressive episode had come to an end.  By the time the book was received by a hungry audience, she was in the most solid, and stable place she had ever known:  it wasn't her first book, she was 38 and in a fantastic marriage.  

She describes the whole journey as a fountain of goodness, and a hinge upon which she can hang the door which separates the dark shadow she left to move into the benevolence and grace she reconnected with.  The fact that the book has been such a good thing for so many, has allowed it to continue to grow.

The puzzle she then faced was of an altogether different nature.  What to do next?  

She took her time before deciding that she needed to quickly write another book.  Battling the 'terrorists' that live in her head, with their deafening messages drenched in pessimism and self defeat, she arrived at a liberating destination - that of acceptance.

Whatever it is that you're going to do next, is going to disappoint.

And so she wrote 'Commitment'.  Which couldn't follow in the footsteps of 'Eat, Pray, Love'.  And which wouldn't.

The secret to her success?  She put it quite beautifully:  "I do what I love."  She has a vocation that means the world to her, and it shows.  She (and her fabulous pink dress) lit up the space.  

She is blossoming, because she is in love.  With the process of writing.  She spoke in terms I could really understand.  She loves the process, and cares far less about the outcome - there's no point:  for it's not up to her.  So, she makes a life of doing what she loves, and releasing it.  

She is thought of as a friend by individuals all over the world; a companion in the weird valley that is life.  The two things she never leaves home without:  empathy and encouragement.  Her presence is one that trainee therapists could do worse than to emulate.

'The Signature of All Things' is her latest offering.  "It's a big book, but it goes down easily".  She's gotten into gardening and wanted to write about plants.  This was one of the clues she happily and generously dispensed this evening.  The secret to creativity is that, at the moment of inception, you must work on the thing that most interests you.

Her commandment makes a lot of sense.  But then she's in a fortunate position.  She spoke with great humility about the legacy of 'Eat, Pray, Love'.  Translated into 30 languages she's sold over 10 million copies worldwide.  She finds herself in a wonderful position to indulge her curiosity for the rest of her life.  

And her curiosity seems boundless...  

Hers was a message of service.  In 'The Signature of All Things' she wanted to write the book that others could, had they had the chance.  She spent three years studying nineteenth century botany (well, why not?!) to write a 500 page novel about a woman that studies moss.  Yes, moss.  Which she eloquently described as the universe in metaphor.  

Elizabeth Gilbert is a woman's woman.  Passionate about the vocations women find for themselves, convinced that her own has saved her more than once.

This is a woman who's been there, and done it.  And come back too.  I adored her philosophy, as she spoke about sibling relationships and those she has espoused in her writing.  It is, she suggests, much easier for people to accept the labels and roles we're all given when we're growing up, and wear these like name-tags, in an attempt to simplify something.  Anything.

Thing is, it doesn't stay simple.  And soon the labels don't fit.  And that's where it gets tricky, and uncomfortable.  And trickier still.  

"You know why your family pushes your buttons...  they installed them!"

This is Gilbert's first novel in thirteen years.  She sought to entertain and delight herself.  She was also very afraid that she might have forgotten how to do it.  And then she feared that she might not remember why it was that people write fiction.

It was like re-learning a foreign language.  Only with a particularly nuanced dialect.  That being that she set herself the task of writing a period novel, ensconced in the world of science.  About which she knew very little.  The scope of the project was daunting.  And energising.  

She quickly remembered why she fell in love first time a-round:  when writing fiction, you can say anything (well, almost - it helps to be believable).  Whilst she wrote it in a blast, this didn't happen quickly.  It has taken four years, and has been something of a labour of her love.  Which is why she felt just a tad indignant when someone tweeted 'love the book.  Did you just go with the flow?'  

#areyouinsane - No, she didn't just go with the flow.  There are some things that happen when you go with the flow.  Novels like this aren't among them.  5 pages of index cards and a 70 page outline.  Flow that!

And what of fiction?  Fiction is, for Gilbert, about an emotional resonance that can't be reached any other way than through the imagination.  When you write fiction you write about yourself, and when you write about yourself, you write fiction.  Fiction is, she thinks, how we connect with a deeper consciousness.  A human consciousness.  She would, I think agree with Blake...

Today, Gilbert writes in seasons.  There is a season for inspiration and a season for research, a season for writing and  season for editing.  Then comes  season for publicity.  And a season of recovery.  Before starting all over again.  But it wasn't always like that.  You don't (and probably won't) get your first book deal writing with the seasons.  You must, she insists, write daily.  

Whilst she writes in a way that you can feel her pain, she doesn't have to go there.  She has publicly refused to write about the marriage that took her on the journey that was to become Eat, Pray, Love.  With yet more humility, she stated simply that neither she nor her husband's behaviours were exemplary.  Whilst she is not in contact with him, she does not wish him ill.  The opposite, in fact.  "If I wanted to complain to someone about my divorce, I'd pay them by the hour."  Writing about it was not an option - as it wouldn't feel okay, ethically, or spiritually.  "I prefer pretty...  Or useful".

Describing herself as always having had one foot with the fairies, she said that whilst she doesn't believe in magic, she does believe in interpreting coincidence however the hell you like.  

Each of her books is dedicated to one person.  'Eat, Pray, Love' was written to a dear friend, Darcy.  It is to them that she addresses the book.  And this was just one more gem she imparted to her grateful audience on the Southbank this evening.  When writing, worry less about why you're writing, and concern yourself firstly with who it is that you are talking to.  For generations, we have gathered round fires to hear stories told.  Aspiring writers should hold their intended audience at the forefront of their mind.  When writing for a specific enough audience, the storyteller's voice is galvanised, and true intimacy achieved.  This is how she meets her readers - and how they feel that they've met her.  

"To lose balance sometimes for love is part of living a balanced life." - Eat, Pray, Love

She sees writing as a spiritual practice to which she is devoted.  For her, the written word is a communion between the human beings' labours and the mystery of inspiration:  we none of us know why we're called to follow curiosity - ideas are made manifest through us.  This is, she feels, the best possible collaboration:  to be inviting of our thoughts, and remain open and receptive to inspiration when it takes hold of us.  She sees ideas as responsibilities, but not burdens:  they want to be born as much as we want them to be.  She is in the business of making ideas happen.  And for that I admire her.  Greatly.      

Gilbert has become something of a heroine.  Her accountability is something I would eagerly aspire to.  And her grace.  Hers is a wisdom that is as simple as it is indisputable:  we should all eat, pray, and love.    

Monday, 14 October 2013

Aching - in a good way

Today I ache.  I woke up feeling surprisingly stiff.  A reminder of those muscles I am apt to forget.  I work plenty of my muscles on a regular basis, but realise now that my usual routine has left a few neglected.  Whilst I have been meaning to get back into Combat, I have not yet re-joined my fellow kicking and punching enthusiasts, and have found an altogether more peaceful and serene way to spend a Sunday morning.

It involves getting out of bed, and getting into town.  But good coffee awaits those who get there early.  The hot drinks provided a much needed warm welcome yesterday as most of us arrived sodden from the heavy rain.  

Yesterday's agenda was a gentle one.  We began by introducing ourselves.  There will, some weeks, be 16 of us.  We all share an interest in yoga and mindfulness for wellbeing, and were expertly guided through a 75 minute practice taught at a truly mindful pace, followed by some very nourishing breath work and an opportunity for discussion at the close of the session.    

Veena is an amazing teacher.  I feel privileged to have discovered her 8 week course 'Yoga Therapy for the Mind', and am delighted to have embarked upon an 8 week program of a somewhat different variety.  We have mindfulness in common, and I'm very much looking forward to exploring the intersection between the two.

My shoulders and hips tell me it's going to be a challenging journey...  
And b-r-e-a-t-h-e...  

Veena's Yoga Therapy website

Yoga with Veena

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Running for life

Last weekend was pretty special.  Two people I consider to be very important were running for life.  Simultaneously, but in different events, they ran and they ran and they ran.  My sister, Honor, ran her first (and, she says, likely last) half marathon starting and finishing in Hyde Park.  My best friend, Charlotte, ran the Abington 10k alongside her own sister, Susie.

Charlotte (left) with Susie post Abington 10k
Honor having just finished the Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon

Sisters are important.  Ours are, we think, super important.  Honor, Charlotte and Susie all did brilliantly.  The autumn sunshine provided the perfect backdrop for their awesome achievements in London and Cambridgeshire respectively, and I cheered my lungs out waiting for Honor alongside fellow 'Team Bones' supporters, firstly at the half way point, and then again when she passed 9 miles, and finally as she came through Alexandra Gate on the home straight with just 600km to go.  

Honor was running for the Bone Cancer Research Trust whose post race hospitality was not to be sniffed at.  They put on a most impressive spread for runners and supporters, and I took great delight in feeding my little sister whilst recording the moment taking photos (a mini gallery of big smiles and swollen toes) and posting updates on her Facebook page.  

Charlotte was running for the hell of it.  And why not!  6 months on from radiotherapy and she's building up to her own half marathon.  Today she ran 9 miles.  No medals this time: just for fun.  The woman is a legend.  
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Thursday, 3 October 2013

"Sssshhhh..." The great paradox

She put it brilliantly when she pointed out how unusual we were.  Amanda O'Donovan is a fantastic speaker.  She engaged us from the outset, and I was hooked.  In some ways, those sitting in the non-descript room at the OU in London, at Hawley Crescent represented a tough, or at least challenging audience.  We are, as she said in her conclusion, all 'sexperts' of one form or another.  But then that makes us no difference to anyone else.  So Amanda would argue...

And I'm with her on this.  The irony is that whilst sex surrounds us, those of us who enjoy talking about sex and are comfortable doing so, are but a tiny minority.  It felt good to be among my tribe.  I wouldn't have missed it.  Meg Barker is something of a legend, in my book.  Anything she puts her name to is sure to be good.  And today was no exception.

Training opportunities are one thing.  We all of us have CPD requirements, and my list of would-like-to-dos is neverending.  Meeting simply for the sake of thinking and discussion is something quite different.  There are far fewer dedicated spaces for this precious and yet vital dialogue, and so I make a point of getting in there whenever I can.

It's a small world, and I was reminded of this today as I entered a room in which I recognised about a third of the faces.  I couldn't tell you their names, but somehow, I know these people to be friends.  Or allies.  So, whilst our opinions might be diffuse and even opposing, our commitment to their consideration is what really matters.  

We are getting there.  There now exist 'Sexual Wellbeing Services' within the NHS.  We have come a long way, and this is a sure sign of change.  Clinicians are talking about wellbeing and might even allude to pleasure.  It's not all about dysfunction and disorder.  Perhaps we are becoming just a tincy wincy bit more sex positive...?  

Perhaps, maybe, hopefully.  In certain, enlightened, corners.  

It is of course impossible to separate sex from culture.  Sex is a social construct.  And this is Britain.  So, what, exactly, do we mean when we refer to 'sex'?  And what might we have to do, to overcome the blocks we've inherited and perhaps unknowingly perpetuated for so long?

I was delighted to be reminded on a psychosynthesis intensive I attended recently, that "we're all of us sexual beings".  There are perhaps far too few environments and contexts in which we are given permission to express this.  Amanda confirmed this by simply inviting the group of us eagerly sitting in front of her to turn to a neighbour, and talk about the last time we had had sex.  The embarrassment and awkwardness was palpable.  I am sure several people made hasty exits.

And there we were, an audience comprising individuals interested in working with sexuality and gender.  

Trainings have a lot to answer for.  Sexuality gets forgotten about, and neglected, all too often.  With appalling consequences.  We are responsible for maintaining or even growing a taboo.  If we are never helped to talk about sex, then we probably never will talk about sex.  Why do you think the self-help shelves are so well stocked in your local bookstore?  (Or perhaps you'd rather buy from Amazon, and have the title discretely delivered in an anonymous cardboard box).  

The reason sexuality struggles to thrive in our culture is that we fail to acknowledge that the relationship we have with this facet of our identity is lifelong.  Sexuality does not, contrary to popular belief, commence with puberty.  Sexuality is present in infancy, but you'll still struggle to find much literature about this.  For too long childhood sexuality has been associated with abuse and paedophilia, and thus it is little surprise that we have such under developed, and under nourished concepts all too frequently contaminated with such profound confusion.  

So what might we, as therapists who aspire to work effectively with our clients' gender and sexuality, do better?  De-constructing our own identities is surely a sound starting point.  Where did we get our ideas about gender and sexuality?  What ideas did we reject, and why?  How do these different ideas fit together?  What impact might these have on the multiple identities and roles we each occupy?

It is, I feel very strongly, a duty incumbent upon any practitioner intending to work with gender and sexual diversity clients to check out fearlessly and thoroughly what we might unwittingly perpetuate in terms of the dominant discourses that inevitably surround us and which, if left unattended and unexplored, will likely suffocate us and stifle our work.  After all, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  

Amanda O'Donovan is Consultant Clinical Psychologist and Head of Psychology at Barts and the London NHS Trust in the Department of Infection & Immunity. She is an Honorary Clinical Lecturer at QMUL and UEL. She has specialised in clinical health psychology since 1998 working with populations including chronic illness, HIV, sexual health and wellbeing, pain, fatigue, sexual assault and sexuality. Her current research interests include mindfulness approaches to sexual dysfunction and sexual risk. 

Meg Barker is a senior lecturer in psychology at The Open University and a UKCP accredited therapist. Meg's research, writing, and therapeutic practice focus on sex and relationships, particularly the ways in which these matters are represented in popular culture, advice, and therapy, and the understandings and practices of various sexual and relationship communities (notably bisexual, kink, and non-monogamous communities). Meg is the editor of the journal Psychology & Sexuality, as well as being co-author/editor of many books and paper on these topics, such as Safe, Sane & Consensual (Palgrave, 2007), Understanding Non-Monogamies (Routledge, 2010) and The Bisexuality Report ( They have also published extensively on counselling and psychotherapy including the books Understanding Counselling & Psychotherapy (Sage, 2010), and Mindful Counselling and Psychotherapy (Sage, 2013), as well as Christina Richards and Meg Barker's book Sexuality and Gender for Mental Health Professionals: A Practical Guide (Sage, 2013) and Meg's own self-help style book Rewriting the Rules: An Integrative Guide to Sex, Love and Relationships (Routledge, 2013). Meg is also a regular blogger on (megbarkerpsych on twitter).