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Category: Sophrology and mindfulness

  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.


  2. Sophrology and mindfulness - similar but different

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    We in the UK are very aware of mindfulness.  Coming from Buddhist meditation and more recently the writing of Thich Nhat Han, the modern mindfulness movement in the States (the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn) has been very successful in establishing a scientific evidence base for its 8-week programmes and enabling mindfulness to be rolled out across the UK.  It is everywhere you care to look: workplaces, schools, hospitals.  But in France, Spain, Belgium and Switzerland they have Sophrology.  In fact Sophrology predates Kabat-Zinn with its use of mindful awareness in the work.  But in Sophrology it is part of a wider package: Sophrology blends mindfulness with dynamic movement; it works through the body to heal the mind; it always accentuates the positive; and it can be goal-oriented, enabling you to function better in a particular situation.  And often it is more accessible to busy, tired people!  But because mindfulness is well known in the UK, Sophrologists here will often start by using it as a point of reference when explaining Sophrology: ‘it’s like mindfulness, but brings in all sorts of other things too...’  Indeed, like mindfulness, Sophrology practice deepens your capacity to connect with your body and your moment-by-moment experience, but we don’t leave you there contemplating how bad things feel – which can be a downside to mindfulness.  We acknowledge what is present, what is real, but we seek always to emphasize the positive in each client.  You do not have to sit for prolonged periods in meditation, either, with Sophrology – though of course you can if you wish.  Instead the aspect of mindful awareness is woven into a dance of physical and mental movement and stillness, and its benefits seep gently through the holes in the net.

    So there are many exercises in Sophrology which connect us with our bodies, as our body is the gateway into the present moment, and the present moment is the gateway to peace.  You might want to take a brief moment right now, reading this, just to cast your attention through your body from head to toe.  Just notice it from the inside: your head and face; your neck, shoulders, arms and hands; your chest and upper back; your abdomen; your lower body from hips down to feet; and then finally your whole body again.  That’s what we call a body scan.  What’s happening in my body?  How do I actually feel?  For the vast majority of our lives we do not connect to our bodies, unless they have become places of pain.  Walking heads, most of us are.  It is common in Sophrology sessions for people to say afterwards that they had no idea they were carrying so much tension in their neck, their shoulders, their hips.  We might, too, notice the places where there is pain, but also all the other places where there is none.  So we move, gently but powerfully, and then afterwards sit or stand for a brief moment just being with all the sensations within caused by that movement.  The pause between exercises is just as important as the exercise itself: it enables integration within your whole being, it embeds the exercise within you. 

    Some exercises work with the five senses; the channels of our experience of this world, of our aliveness.  We sit noticing, really noticing, what it is to see, to hear, to smell, to touch, to taste.  Again, so much that many of us take for granted.  I was struck by a recent Radio 4 interview with a man experiencing anosmia (absence of smell), and how deeply distressing and affecting it had been for him.  So we tune in and we listen without judgement to our experience, both outer and inner.  It brings us back into the world with a somehow calmer, steadier, deeper feeling of connection.  Walking heads are by definition disconnected from most of their physical experience.  Sophrology gently builds a sense of wholeness again, puts the fragments gently back together.  

    As we progress through the levels of Sophrology we begin to encounter the future and the past, as well as the present.  We take this mindful awareness, this neutral gaze, and turn it on aspects of our experience, taking what they can teach us about our capacity to cope, or to heal, and bringing it forwards.  Sophrology as alchemist of our experience; taking the base metals of our lives and transmuting them into the gold of awareness and acceptance.

    At the heart of this process lies something quite hard to put in words.  Then I find it helpful to remember that the opposite of rational need not always be irrational, but can also be transrational, or beyond that which the rational mind can process.  This is the thing that Zen brings to the Sophrology table, this intuitive sense of a different kind of knowing that lies beyond the cognitive.  Somehow the simple, repeated actions and pauses, the visualisations, the meditations, create a space in which wisdom and healing begin to peep through.  As if they were always there, just hidden.  Jung said towards the end of his life that he wasn’t aware of a single one of his clients whose problems could not have been solved by contact with what he called “the Numinous” – this spacious, infinitely safe place of pure awareness within us all.

    For, as the poet David Whyte says: “What is precious inside us does not care to be known by the mind in ways that diminish its presence.” (‘The Winter of Listening’, The House of Belonging).

    But more of this another time.

    For now, wishing you peace.