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  1. The communication system between our bodies and our brains is a two-way job.  We are basically superbly evolved threat-detecting machines.  Affect is the emotional data that travels upwards from body to brain, informing the brain via the vagus nerve of any perceived danger or threat.  Effect is the data travelling the other way, from brain to body.  We might think that there would be more effect than affect, but this is not the case: in fact there is around 70% more affect than effect.  The body is like three-headed Cerberus, guarding the underworld, and without its continual vigilance our survival could be compromised.  So the vagus nerve wanders – as its name suggests – like a vagabond through the body, channelling sensory communication between the brain and organs in the neck, chest and abdomen.  And one of its principal jobs is balancing the nervous system.  When the affect coming up to the brain from the gut suggests danger, the sympathetic nervous system kicks in and floods us with the necessary hormones to deal with it: to run, to freeze, to fight.  Then the parasympathetic side, which also relies heavily on the vagus nerve, sends signals from brain to body to calm, soothe and relax.  We are all at the mercy of this sophisticated, marvellously intricate dance of stimulation and soothing.  Our survival literally depends on it.

    Two weeks before Easter in 2017, I was standing in the kitchen when the phone rang.  It was the first day of the school holidays, and I was happy.  It was a gentle, warm morning; the children were still in pyjamas and pottering contentedly around the house.  We were all enjoying the sense of freedom and rest that the break from routine brings.  But then the phone rang.  It was the doctor.  Odd.  The doctor never calls me.  But I had seen him a week previously for what I had thought a minor symptom.  And he was now calling to say that he had referred me to the hospital for this, and they had informed him that I had been fast-tracked into the two-week system for cancer investigations.  He said he had to say the word ‘cancer’ to me, because that was explicitly what they were looking for, and I should be aware of it, and I should expect to hear from the hospital very soon.  I stood in my dressing-gown in the kitchen and felt myself start to shake.  The sun was still shining, and the children were still playing, but for me it was the end of all peace; instead I found myself plunged into a maelstrom of intense fear and panic, and physical pain, for the next three weeks.  I realised that my worst fear, my very worst fear, could perhaps be about to be realised: that of dying while the children were still young.  This was so terrifying to me, and cut so deep, that I could not rationalise it in any way, or diminish it to any degree.  My body could not deal with it either, and for those three weeks I experienced acute stomach pains – a symptom I have never had before or since.  So I lived with this night and day for that time, and it became for me a trauma that set in motion the period of ill-health I have described elsewhere.  It was enormous, all-consuming.  Then when I was eventually seen by the hospital, it came suddenly, almost anticlimactically, to nothing: I was fine.  Bullet dodged.  Crisis over.  I sat numbly in the carpark looking around at the people, the trees.  There was an abrupt and deathly quietness in my mind, but strangely no relief – only exhaustion in the empty space that fear had occupied.  And my body, faithful guardian, was still rigid, holding me safe in hypervigilance.  The aftershocks of this trauma continued to reverberate through me for many months.

    We live, most of us, with an abiding sense of apprehension.   Things could go pearshaped at any point.  And the trouble is that we are right.  This body will break down, my mind won’t work.  It’s going to happen to others we love.  We’re going to have losses.  This apprehension seems built into the fact of living in a human body and experiencing reality through thoughts and feelings.  We are offered this life only on terms of complete physical insecurity.  It can feel like we are a bunch of tense muscles contracting against existence itself.  Braced.  One family member often starts a telephone conversation with the words ‘News of fresh disasters?’  It is humorous and bleak at the same time.  We contract, we brace – the blow could come from any corner at any moment.

    So how do we soften into this life, knowing that any minute it could all be taken away?  Given that we will lose everything, how do we live at all?  This question is, it seems to me, one of the most important questions we can ask, and impacts absolutely everything.  How do we achieve a sense of fundamental wellbeing in the face of certain loss?  It is an anxiety that underpins all other anxiety, backgrounded initially (if we are fortunate) by youth and inexperience perhaps, but foregrounded as we move through the chapters of this life.  I certainly felt it strongly during my time of illness and re-evaluation last year, as death is not something that happens once but comes in many different forms and guises.  There are deaths in our lives of many different things – jobs, relationships, contexts.  That chapter, those people, that place and that shared experience will never come again.  Then there are rebirths, which we cannot know during the deaths because they are hidden from view, round the bend of life.  “Death is but a horizon, and a horizon is but a limitation of our view.” (Bishop Brent)  In this way we are continually rehearsing loss, experiencing the natural order of rise and fall built into our world, and every loss in some way foreshadows the great loss.  When asked in a recent interview "what do you think happens after death?", actor Keanu Reeves said "the people who love us will miss us very much".  I read this and had to sit with it for a while.  It is deceptively profound.  It leans – unusually in these times – into uncertainty. 

    I don’t know, but I have a feeling that tolerating uncertainty might be important for us on many levels of our being.  And being able to relax and to soften into life is one of them.  When I was experiencing a period of anxiety last year, my body was in a more or less permanent brace position, as if I was a passenger on a plane with their head down between their knees ready for the worst.  My body was totally certain that all the bad stuff was coming.  Part of my healing, and my ongoing journey, has been this continual process of deliberately relaxing the body so that it becomes less certain and sends different signals to the mind.  This allows for – initially – moments of space between thoughts, that become gradually wider and broader with time, until the mind is no longer a frenzied cauldron of fear and panic.  If the body is consistently not sending those fight or flight signals up the vagus nerve, eventually the snowstorm of the mind will settle into stillness.  And when the snowglobe is still again, the wisdom and peace that is in us all is revealed.  It is only a thought away at all times. 

    Looking back, could I have applied this to my three weeks of waiting during the cancer scare?  Or are there some times in our lives when we simply can’t relax and soften?  I think, in humility, and in the knowledge that people go through absolutely terrifying and terrible things, which are infinitely difficult to bear, that – if we can, and there are no ‘shoulds’ here, just what we are capable of at the time – softening into the experience, into the moment, is the most direct way through it to the other side.  As in the Bear Hunt, we can’t go over it, or under it, or round it: we have to go through it.  Richard Rohr, priest and mystic, says that we meditate every day until we reach an inner ‘yes’ towards the moment, towards our lives.  This ‘yes’ is not an anaesthetising, numbing resignation, either (and it is definitely not a moral condoning of a harmful experience), but it is a willingness to feel fully and to experience deeply what is happening.  It is radical surrender.  Certainly, at the heart of my terror and panic was a huge, screaming ‘no’.  The ‘no’ was the foundation of my suffering.  You might say, how could it be otherwise?  Can we ever really say ‘yes’ to the darkest moments of our lives?  But given that the moment is what it is, and there is no way of making it otherwise, perhaps the paradox of softening into it – no matter how terrible – is that we find through that inner ‘yes’ the strength to live it and the space to transmute it into the gold of our growth.  Perhaps.

    And I haven’t even mentioned Sophrology yet…  which begins exactly in this place of reconnecting to and relaxing the body.  It is the first step of the journey, and in many ways the cornerstone: we always circle back to it.  If you were to come for Sophrology treatment for anxiety - or anything else - we would begin with the body.  Because the body may "keep the score" (Bessel van der Kolk), but it is also the gatekeeper to the present moment.  Like a computer programme, it continually overwrites all previous versions of itself as it progresses linearly through time.  It exists only now: I cannot be in it a year ago.  And the present moment is the point of power and the fulcrum of change. 

    So we soften, we relax.  Let's start right now.  Pause right now and place your attention inside your body.  Feel first your head and face, from the inside.  Relax the muscles around your eyes.  Unclench your jaw.  Then your neck, shoulders, arms and hands.  Let your shoulders drop.  Then your chest and upper back.  Then your abdomen and lower back.  Then your lower body from hips down to your toes.  And finally your whole body, head to foot.

    Then connect with your breathing. Nothing to fix or change, just notice how the body is breathing. Stay with yourself for a few breaths.

    This is the start of the way home to yourself.

    Wishing you peace.

    Helena

  2. What might a day in my life vis-à-vis Sophrology look like?  I have written quite a bit now about how useful it is and given a sense of some of the exercises.  But I was asked by a reader what actually happens, and what I am actually doing.  The extent to which I use Sophrology in the course of my daily life varies, according to need and circumstance, but I have found over the last year that it has now become a continual hum in the background, and when I am stressed or challenged I will automatically turn towards it.  I will try to give some sense here of what that means.

    Waking up in the morning was, for a while last year, a vulnerable time for me.  I would feel a flood of anxious thinking surge up with my rising consciousness.  Thoughts about the day, about the anxiety itself – I was so scared of it.  In fact, I need to back up here into the depths of the night: my day did not begin in the morning, but would be a rolling experience of managing panic across day and night, in between sleeping periods.  So I would wake up in the darkness and try and breathe my way through the fear, and hold it somehow within my taut body without screaming.  I did find myself breathing, and trying to relax, and exhaustion would eventually give way to sleep again.  It was a hard and lonely place, the middle of the night. 

    But now my nights are peaceful again and my day begins, mostly, with calm.  Waking up I might take a moment to feel my body from the inside as it lies in the bed.  Connect with each part from the head down to the toes, and then the body as a whole.  It is a silent welcoming of my being.  Of myself.  Of my life, in truth.  Here I am again.  Waking up for another day.  So normal and ordinary, and yet not.  For me a moment of simple embodiment is only a heartbeat away from gratitude, even when there doesn’t seem much to be grateful for, and gratitude seems just another stick to beat myself with.  Come inside the body, place your attention within your physical being and rest there for a moment.  As John O’Donohue says: our bodies know that they belong, and if we seek refuge there – even for a short time – we will find ourselves belonging too.  This peace from the body, this steady presence (still here, faithfully waiting for us to settle down and find it) provides strings for the homeless mind, like the ropes holding a hot-air balloon to the earth.  It grounds us, it brings us home.  It enables us to grasp what is now, what is real.  And for me, a deep sense of gratitude, which can be almost heartbreaking, enters in soon after on cat’s paws.

    Begin the day with a moment of knowing that you are beginning a day of life that was never promised.  I cannot always hold this knowledge, because the fragility and the pain of it can sometimes feel overwhelming, but it is true: I am waking up beside my husband, who is also waking up, and feeling the presence of my children in their beds, also waking up.  We are all still here.  In their houses, their beds, are my brothers and their families, my parents.  We begin another day together.  The way to hold this and transmute the pain into gratitude is to breathe, connect with your body, feel yourself even for a moment in your bed.  Notice what it is to wake, to open eyes again.  My husband and I are in our forties now, and we live busy lives with work and three children, with money and mortgage and bills, with broken toes and changing bodies, but we met at the age of nineteen at university when he was just a boy still.  In that moment between asleep and waking I can feel him, the boy I fell in love with.  And he is still here beside me twenty-five years later when I wake, in the house that we have built together, surrounded by the children we have made together.  All this happens in a moment.  Mindful awareness deepens into gratitude, deepens into peace.  Somehow we can hold it all in the body, and it takes perhaps a minute or two, no longer.

    If we can start our day with a brief moment of awareness, we have trodden a path across a field that is somehow easier to find again through the day.  It is easier to walk a path that is already there, rather than have to beat down the long grass.  So I am more likely to be mindful as I get the children dressed and ready, as I grapple with the shoes and the teeth and the hair.  The cereal in bowls, the orange juice.  The radio in the background.  The curveballs: the fiver for a trip, the bike lock that doesn’t work, the trainer that the dog has put somewhere.  The reading diary: always somehow a curveball every morning.  In the chaos of goodbyes and routines that never quite feel rock steady, I can find myself on stronger ground just by casting my awareness through my body once again.  Yes, still here.  I am then more likely to connect with my son before he leaves, to see him and to love him.  Only four years left before he will be gone.  How do I hold the pain of that?  Again, the body whispers: I am here.

    In the car I can release tension by noticing how I am driving, holding the wheel.  Does my neck need to be rigid?  Can I invite it to relax?  Outside the school a man shouts abuse at me and the children as he drives off down the road.  I feel the flood of fear and threat within me, the shock of aggression.  Immediately I breathe in deeply and connect with my body.  Ok, not nice, but it begins to pass through.  Still here.

    I continue my journey through the day.  A difficult telephone conversation with Virgin Mobile who want to charge me quite a lot of extra money.  They promise to call back within 48 hours and I know that call won’t come.  I come off the phone and immediately stand for a few moments in the kitchen: I connect with my body again, I do three big tense and release exercises (stretching the whole body as strongly as I need to), and I do the shoulder pumping exercise and the puppet.  I imagine that I am literally shaking off the conflict and the frustration, sending it out of my body.  If I wanted to, I could hold a cushion and place the woman I talked to who put the phone down on me and the whole damn thing into this cushion, breathe deeply and throw it down on the floor as angrily as I need to.  It sounds a bit silly, perhaps, and is certainly a strange thing to do: throwing a cushion and imagining that Virgin Mobile is inside it.  But it’s powerful magic.  The feeling at the end of these three minutes is palpably different.  I can go on now without that conversation poisoning my whole day.  Because why should Virgin Mobile take this day of my life away from me? 

    I walk through the fields with Bertie.  Goodness, dog-walking is good for the soul!  The same familiar paths but the changing weather and seasons.  Holding the tension between what is constant and what is changing.  I often walk and daydream, think, get ideas.  Sometimes nothing, just walking.   But if I am troubled I can breathe in time to my steps, I can do clearing breaths through the body, or do an exercise lifting and lowering my forearms with my hands held in different positions.  Or I can simply walk in mindful awareness, inviting my senses to tune in as fully as they can to the experience.  What can I see, smell, touch, hear?  Coming home to the ‘temple of our senses’ is where we will find rest for troubled minds.

    Back in the flow of the day, if I know that what I am about to do could be tricky I have tools at my disposal.  I go into a meeting having spent two minutes in the car beforehand preparing myself to be strong and calm and clear.  Again, it starts with connecting with the body.  Then a couple of tense and releases.  Then a moment of being present with the breath, before using the inbreath to invite into me what I need in that moment and using the outbreath to spread and fix that within me.  Three structured breaths bringing in strength and focus.  It is remarkable how different you feel with such simple, swift practices.  And if the meeting does not feel good afterwards, if it’s still jangling around in me, I have tools to let that go quicker and find compassion both for myself and for the other person.  What I am seeing as I write this is that Sophrology helps me to allow life to flow through me more easily.  It’s not that I flow through life more easily, in some kind of zen-like trance, but that I am awake and engaged and feeling it all and life flows through me.  It doesn’t get stuck as much.  You know what I mean – the daily struggle out there to deal with people and living.  Some of this is conscious: the road rage man, the telephone company.  But a lot is unconscious and surges up before I even know what’s happening: I see a certain car and am catapulted into annoyance about someone I don’t like who has that car.  There is an exercise in Sophrology where we are invited to contemplate a neutral object.  It is incredible how hard it is to find something truly neutral: pretty much everything carries with it triggers of memory or association.  I found myself settling on an apple, eventually, in one session, but even that wasn’t really neutral because I like apples and I can remember all sorts of occasions eating them, or the way I used to leave ratty little cores around the house as a teenager, and then I’m thinking about being a teenager and sitting in my mum’s bedroom late at night, and then there’s sadness about something I remember us talking about, and then there’s my mum and my relationship with her and how I miss her even though she is still here because part of me wonders if I will ever see enough of her or spend enough time with her even though she is regularly in my home and present in my life: do we ever get enough from our mothers?  All this just from an apple.

    So Sophrology allows this life to flow through me more gracefully, and with less getting stuck on the sides.  Because, people, we have to lay some of this down, allow it to pass through.  Otherwise we are so heavily burdened with each moment of experience, or perhaps so hardened and numb to it, that there is no room left for meeting it fresh and clear and alive.  How on earth do we get out of the house each day, frankly, with all that we are carrying?  How do we stand a chance of meeting another driver without shouting at them, given all that we are struggling with?  We all have our big traumas within that we lug around like suitcases.  In helping to move through the many small traumas that life inflicts every day, Sophrology creates a clearing for the deeper stuff also to start shifting.  It is all about returning to balance, basically, and a more spacious inside with which to meet and experience life.

    I think you’re probably getting the picture now.  The day carries on, from the rising rhythms of the morning to the falling ones of the afternoon and evening.  Joys, I can feel them more fully.  Sadnesses too, but it all passes through.  Perhaps I’ll hold onto it for a bit longer, a day or two, but the continued practice will soon do its work.  At night, if I am grounded and connected I can really immerse myself in the particular joy of connecting with each child at bedtime.  The intimacy with each, so particular to them and to the parts of myself that they draw forth.  It is completely different, and completely precious, with each of them.  That has been one of the most wonderful mysteries of my parenthood, this understanding that it’s not one pot of love which divides among three, but three equally vast pots of love.  Who knew?  And what does it mean for this world and all its many people?

    Into bed and the day is over.  A moment to recognise again where I am and who is with me.  We have all made it through another day.  We are still here.

    Wishing you peace.

    Helena