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  1. Life is changing waters.  Listening to one of Oprah’s podcasts yesterday morning in the car, I heard that the obstacles life places in our way are essential to our growth.  The system seems to build them in.  It’s when we hit the rapids that we become stronger.  It’s when we feel like we are falling apart that we are being reconstructed from the ground up.

    It made me think about the work of development or evolution of the self that we are all (knowingly or unknowingly) signed up for as humans – work that will either be done by us, or to us, but it will be done.  And balance is often the first casualty in our lives as we begin the descent towards the rapids, as the noise starts to grow and the speed of the water begins – at first almost unnoticeably – to quicken.  By the time we hit the white water, balance has long gone.  Time now to grip the sides of the boat with all our might.  At the age of 19 I went white-water rafting in Zimbabwe, during a year of teaching out in Africa.  Someone had died on the river the week before our group made the trip, so signing the waivers – comprehensively absolving the company from any part in our injury or demise – felt heavy and foolhardy.  As a glasses-wearer, I was given a strap with which to tie them on to my lifejacket, and the instructor knotted the cord for me, to make sure it was secure.  It was not secure.  On the very first rapid, at the start of an eight-hour day on the river Zambezi, I was flung out of the boat and when I emerged from the washing-machine of the white water glad to still be alive, my glasses were no longer with me.  As a minus nine in both eyes, I was then literally disabled for the rest of the day, and became a liability to my group.  I couldn’t leave the trip because I couldn’t see to walk the 1km up and out of the gorge by myself.  Instead I had to stay and be guided every step of the way, held tight by my friends on each rapid so that if I went out  - we all went out.  On the penultimate rapid, which flung almost everyone out into the churning water, myself and the two friends on either side of me stayed clinging to the back edge of the boat as it surfed the water, held down and momentarily stuck in the tumultuous heart of the rapid.  It was utterly terrifying.  Then the boat was suddenly released and surged back up to the surface of the water to meet us, slamming into my ankle.  The pain was enormous.  I nearly fainted with it.  Somehow I managed the walk out of the gorge – I think I was barely present in my body anymore, it had been such a difficult day.  Within a short time, my ankle was ballooned and agonising, and I continued to canoe and finish my time in Africa without so much as a strap or a painkiller.  Months later, back in England, an x-ray would reveal that it had been broken that day.

    So anyway, my point is that in the rapids of life shit happens.  At the end of that day, back at the campsite, the company tried to flog us pictures of our day on the Zambezi.  There was one of me, my face white and childlike, my eyes unseeing, being manhandled in my boat by my poor friends.  It was darkly comic, the idea that I would buy a memento of it.  In the rapids, we can only surf and survive.  Balance is long gone.

    Where are you right now in your journey along the river?  Because part of remaining balanced is knowing precisely where you are and being able to readjust in the moment, to alter position.  Balance requires awareness.  And insight.  It’s another tricky thing, but the journey from balanced and ok to unbalanced and not ok is often a subtle and incremental process.  Looking back at my own struggles a couple of years ago, there were definitely plenty of warning signs that I was losing balance, but I simply could not see them for what they were until I hit the wall.  It was a gradual decline, a week-by-week downward slope, but without the stage markers of a marathon that might have alerted me to how desperate things were getting.  That’s what I could have done with: Helena, you are now at mile 12 – some distance from normal.  Mile 17 – things are getting worse: wake up!  Mile 22: you really need to realise what’s going on now because the crash is imminent.  Mile 26: too late. 

    What mile are you at right now?  What would your marker say if you could see it?

    In this family we’re not very good at servicing our cars, mainly because they’re ancient old bangers which cost us enough in the course of the year anyway, and the last thing we feel like doing is shelling out another £200.  But regular servicing, of our appliances, our boilers, our cars, is a feature of many people’s lives.  And regular servicing of our mental and physical wellbeing is something that can – in many cases – prevent us from reaching the rapids in the first place, or put us in a much stronger place to deal with them if they cannot help but happen.  Sophrology is a wonderful tool for maintaining balance.  Because we literally find our balance as we stand and move in dynamic relaxation.  A member of the Sophrology group I am running at the moment said that she had been very surprised to find that she could stand with her eyes closed so easily and for so long.  She had felt unexpectedly strong and balanced.  We work with balance in many different ways in Sophrology.  We ground ourselves through our feet into the earth beneath us, drawing up strength and stability through our bodies.  We bring balance back into our minds and bodies through visualisation.  We bring balance back through the breath.  We balance ourselves with movements that release tension and negative emotions and enable the positive to begin rising up again. 

    Another thing I heard yesterday, again courtesy of Oprah: strength plus time equals power.  Perhaps we can give ourselves what we need to maintain our stability on a daily basis.  Could we get enough sleep?  Could we choose a walk at lunchtime?  Could we eat some fruit?  But if not, and if (when) we slide, Sophrology can also help us in the washing-machine of the rapids and give our arms and legs the strength they need to get us to the calmer waters, give our minds the clarity they need to find the way there.  And the things we learn in the white water, the strength we are required to find, the resources we have no choice but to develop – all these over time give us much more power, in the deepest truest sense of what being powerful means.

    You could try this right now if you like.  Stand in a comfortable position, and take a moment to look around you and see where you are.  Connect with your body inside, connect for a moment or two with your breathing.  Nothing to fix or change, just noticing what is present.  And then close your eyes if you wish – or if not, keep your gaze on the floor.  And play with your sense of balance for a moment.  Explore it here and now – what does it mean to be balanced?  To be unbalanced?  What does it take for the body to remain upright?  The energy within the body – how much is needed?  Can I release any unneeded energy?  Can I find a sense of balance without holding on quite so tightly?

    Life is changing waters – the shipping forecast changes hourly.  Wait for calmer waters and you could be waiting and resenting the sea forever.  The challenge is rather to build strength and cultivate balance so that we can ride the waves we are given, every normal day, every so-called normal week.  And when the giant ones come that would destroy us, we flail and fall and struggle for breath and fight and rest.  We hold to the memory of balance and being upright until one day we realise that we are no longer walking on our knees.

    My fourteen year-old son is a surfer.  He loses himself for hours in Youtube, watching – almost hypnotically – the footage of huge waves rolling above the heads of small black-clad figures on their boards defying death.  We live in a part of the country surrounded by the still North Sea, and this is hard for my son –who longs for the cliffs and crashing waves of our holidays in West Wales.  For these days he heads out in those waves alone and paddles straight out towards the horizon, way beyond where I can properly see him, to the green water where he waits with other bobbing heads.  It is much further out than I am comfortable with.  I have to consciously push down the part of me that cannot bear him to be so far away, in such deep water, beyond where I can reach him.  Because when the wave he has been waiting for comes, and the moment is right, he suddenly paddles with all his might and launches upright onto his board and he is riding the water.  He is graceful and strong, and balanced.  He is entirely in the moment.  He is alive.  And this is his journey –not mine.  I have to let him go ride his waves.

    Wishing you awareness, and balance.  Because without it we are metaphorically, and literally, underwater.  And it matters to this world, to the people that love you, and to me, that you are well.

    Helena

  2. The winter months of early 2007 were cold and snowy.  I remember them well, as they were a particularly happy time for me.  Newly pregnant with our second child, I was holding life with a kind of secret tenderness and wonder.  I felt this with each of my children.  I remember the day I discovered the existence of my first child: I walked away from an office in central London and journeyed home on the tube in a forever-altered state.  A rubicon had been crossed, a gateway breached.  There was before, and then there was after.  And for those few hours it was a completely private experience; just me and my baby, and on both sides it was a wordless, deep knowing.  A sensing of presence.  There was a life within me, and no one else knew.  Just us.  I think of him now, 14 years old and somewhere in school as I write this.  He is nearly a man.  But his earliest moments of being were just mine and his to share, and I will always treasure the memory of them.  I wonder somehow if that afternoon he sensed that moment of my knowledge of him, whether something travelled down the cord connecting us, some flash of recognition, some reaching out of my hand to his.  I think it was so.

    They were tender, fragile, and wondrous for me, those early days of pregnancy.  And so in February 2007 I found myself expecting again.  It was a deeply happy time.  My husband was studying for exams every morning at home while I looked after our nearly two year-old.  Then after lunch in the kitchen we would set off together on what became known as our daily ‘Magical Mystery Tour’: my husband would drive us all the short distance to Wanstead Park and we would come at this stark, snowy place from a different angle each time.  Exploring it afresh, our boots crunching through the cold.  Such joy, we had.  It was as if the rest of east London had agreed that it should be ours alone.  We walked, and ran, and sang and chatted.  My eldest was known at the time as ‘Mr Chatters’: “I am a very talkable boy, Mummy”, he once said.  And I watched him and my husband together, often slightly ahead of me, hand-in-hand, their beloved backs.  Why is it that seeing the people we love from behind is so touching?  Is it that they are moving away from us?  Or just that we almost see them more completely somehow, their three-dimensionality, their otherness?  It is as if they crystallise for that moment, as if they are focused into being.  There they are.

    Towards the end of our walk each afternoon we would stop to collect wood for the fire at home.  Little boy with his arms full of wood, helping Daddy.  Back at the house the two of them would cut the pieces up just like Wallace and Gromit building their rocket in ‘A Grand Day Out’.  And then we would light the fire.  Teatime.

    I have paused here for a while writing this.  There is a beauty in these memories that goes all the way down to my soul, and it feels like it needs a moment’s silence, a moment’s genuflection.  This was so.  It is mine and mine alone.  And I will hold it forever somewhere very deep within me where all the most important moments still live and can be touched at any time.

    Because a few weeks later, the baby within me died, and that happiness was over.  I didn’t know then that I would be pregnant again within a short time, and that my second son was waiting in the wings.  That what I would learn about loss and compassion would serve me (and, I hope, others) for the rest of my life.  No, I had to go through one of the hardest experiences of my life, which sat in such contrast to the happiness before.  C.S. Lewis says in ‘A Grief Observed’: “The pain now is the happiness I had before.  That’s the deal.”  I always thought this meant simply that we grieve to the extent that we have loved, but it is more than this. 

    At our Sophrology training weekend this month, we were looking again at the third level.  This is based on Japanese Zen, where we take the work of the first two levels developing the ‘I’ as subject and then object in the world, and widen the horizon, deepen the perspective.  ‘I’ becomes universal, and our focus is the past.  As if the past is a country we all inhabit in the same way.  We are invited by level three to retrieve positive memories from the past, but the exercise is profound, and the effects are emotional, because – as I have realised lately – even the positive memories are shot through with pain for me, like the seam within rock.  And similarly, the painful memories contain within them the seeds of future joys. It's as if the past cannot be sorted, simply, into boxes of good and bad.

    Zen is a wonderful holding-bowl for this.  There is the story of the monk who, when he breaks his leg and ends up in hospital and neighbours come to commiserate, says ‘Maybe’.  And then when his house burns down, but he has been saved by being in hospital, and they come to congratulate, he again says ‘Maybe’.  And there the story ends.  Meaning…  well, you will have your own thoughts on that, and for you they will be true, of which more another time.  But the quality Caycedo wanted to bring to bear on level three was non-judgement.  Can we relax the muscles of the eyes so that they look at the past without judgement?  And what is the effect of such a looking?  When I did this exercise at the weekend, and was invited to let a positive memory come to mind, I suddenly found myself back in those days of the Magical Mystery Tour, and I could taste the happiness so strongly it made me cry.  And I realised afterwards that I had to some extent pushed that time away because of the awful sorrow that came after it.  And that even though the foreshadowing of that pain was contained within it – and that’s ‘the deal’ – the joy was no less joyful.  Indeed, it was MORE SO.  And then, without judgement and the labelling that comes with it of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, what was any of it anyway but pure experience?  It is what it is, and it was what it was, and this is a truism and a cliché that clangs at us like a bell until suddenly it illuminates everything.  Maybe.

    So parts of myself were knitted back together last weekend.  Bits that I had disowned because they were too painful.  Bits that I had disowned because they felt in retrospect like the forerunners of pain.  I felt like not only could I bring back into love and awareness one of the most beautiful times of my life, but I had somehow pierced through a new veil of understanding.  A shift that was at once deep and simple.  I am both changed and not changed at all.

    Which is one of the gifts of Zen, and its provocative earthiness.  So you’re enlightened? It says.  Great, now go pick up the kids from school.  ‘After the ecstasy, the laundry’ as Jack Kornfield writes.  And so I will pick up the kids from school.

    And if all this is making Sophrology sound very philosophical and heady, I would just say that it both is and is not.  It takes you there if it takes you there, and otherwise it helps you do the laundry.

    Wishing you a sense of maybe.

    Helena