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Category: Sophrology and aliveness

  1. Sophrology and balance: surfing the waters of life

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    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 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.


  2. Sophrology and relaxation: softening into life

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    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.