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Category: What is Sophrology and how is it used?

  1. A Day in the Life of Sophrology

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    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

  2. Sophrology and the Glass Jar

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    This has been a helpful metaphor for me in understanding what Sophrology seeks to do.  Imagine that each of us is a glass jar full of ‘stuff’; life experience, genetic history, emotions, thoughts, traumas.  Investigating the stuff inside the jar; delving deep into it, getting it out bit by bit and examining it; this is the work of counselling and psychotherapy.  We don’t do that: Sophrology seeks instead to strengthen the glass.  So at a Sophrology session you will not have to deep-dive into your stuff.  Rather we identify what is happening in your life that you want to change, how it is affecting you, and we go from there.  It’s about the ‘what’ and the ‘how’.  The ‘why’ is not important in Sophrology.  You might need the in-depth work of counselling, which I absolutely endorse – I have done counselling training myself.  But then again perhaps you will not: as I wrote in “How I met Sophrology”, an earlier post, I somehow knew that talking things through was not what I needed last year.  Instead Sophrology might be what you are looking for; a safe, non-judgemental space and a set of flexible therapeutic tools to help you to become stronger and more able to handle life, and find your own resources and solutions.  This is not to say, though, that Sophrology is not sometimes uncomfortable in the moment – it can be.  But it always seeks to accentuate the positive within you, and does not leave you adrift in the negative.  The client is also entirely in charge of the direction and pace of the process.  If you say to me that getting better sleep is your number one priority right now, then that is where we begin – even if you were also bereaved recently and you are experiencing stress at work and you're getting headaches.  Together we clarify what is most important to you, and the journey starts there.  Caycedo believed firmly that any positive act on one part of your being reinforces the positivity and health of the whole, and he held tight to the importance of sovereignty and autonomy for the client.

    The glass also needs strengthening at times in a very specific way.  So let’s say you have an exam, or an audition, or an important presentation at work coming up, and the mere thought of it makes you shake.  Sophrology has exercises which boost both your physical and your mental strength, helping you to access the resources you need and giving you precise techniques to practise in the minutes leading up to your performance so that you can be at your best.  Put simply, this works.  I have had two significant interviews in the past couple of months and for each did a brief set of exercises on the day that enabled me to feel confident and connected – in a real way, not a ‘fake it till you make it’ way, and to perform at my best.  In fact I’ve done it quite a few times now for public speaking or the like, and it has never let me down.  So Sophrology is very useful for actors, dancers, musicians, speakers, people taking exams and all those who have to step up to the mike and can find themselves battling the nerves.

    It’s also used widely in the field of sport, at the highest international levels, but that’s another post.

    Ultimately it's about life, though, in its widest sense.  These glass jars of ours take a battering.  Last week I wrote about the two days I spent with my Grandma as she died.  Each morning I got up at 6am, sat quietly in the stillness of the sleeping house and for ten minutes did a series of very specific exercises that would give me the strength I needed to do what I was going to have to do, to see what I was going to have to see.  Starting by relaxing my shattered body, I released the tension that was making my shoulders and neck rigid, then activated energy within my cells, and breathed strength and peace into every part of me.  I felt this underpinning me and fortifying me through everything that followed.  

    So for the moment, hold your glass jar tenderly!  And if that metaphor makes you think about glass breaking, know that our broken places can be our very strongest places in the end.  And our most beautiful.  In the words of Leonard Cohen: “Ring the bells that still can ring.  Forget your perfect offering.  There’s a crack, a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets in.”  I think more and more that not hiding our cracks, even when the jar is mended, is how we walk each other home.

    Wishing you peace.

    Helena