Category Archives: Blog

“Le aspettative sono nemiche della pace”/ Expectations are the enemy of Peace

How can we manage our Expectations in the next phase of the Coronavirus Pandemic so that they do not destroy our peace of mind?

Many of us would have had plans for 2020. Personally, I have been studying Italian on Duolingo for a year, and I had booked and paid for a trip to Turin for the week beginning March 15, 2020.

Piazza Solferino, Turin

The first case of Coronavirus in Turin was on 24 February. Within a day, that number rose to 100. Within a few days it was clear that this was a very serious problem.

Meanwhile, the Government in the UK seemed to be ignoring the problem. My expectations of going were thrown into doubt, and I was thrown into confusion.

Without the Government forbidding travel to Italy, I could not cancel my bookings and get a refund. If I went, I risked bringing the Virus home and to work.

Over the next two weeks, my anxiety increased exponentially as I tried to work out what I should do. I sought advice from the University, but they were Duty bound to follow Government advice.

AT with a Music Student

I wrote to explain that as an Alexander Technique (AT) teacher/Coach within the Department of Music and for staff across the University, I spent an hour 1-1, face to face with clients, and Alexander Technique is hands on. Were they still happy for me to go and return to work if I did not have symptoms. The Government advice was YES.

Not only was I anxious, but also angry. I worked with people who had had cancer, whose immune systems were compromised. And I understood that if I brought back the virus asymptomatically and infected anyone at the University, I could be the cause of shutting down the entire Institution. And I felt I was being left to shoulder the burden of ethical working, and losing my hard earned money into the bargain.

I should perhaps explain that I moved to York in 2011, knowing only two people, and being self employed. I am still Self Employed, and only earn when I work. It has taken me years of insecurity to build up a reputation and to be able to afford to travel, and I am well aware of how easily a reputation is lost, and how difficult it is to regain.

So this situation matter to me a great deal and created a great deal of stress.

Despite my disappointment at not being able to go, it actually came a great relief to my equanimity when the Government finally gave clear advice, banning all unnecessary travel to Northern Italy, and I no longer had to make what seemed an impossible decision.

A ‘night out’ – in my tiny garden

Like most people in the UK, I have knuckled down under lockdown and made the best of it, despite having lost all of my Alexander Technique work and much of my precarious income.

My most exciting event of a day!

I realised very quickly last weekend, when I read that Italy was opening its borders on June 3, how my inner peace was immediately shattered. Suddenly my expectations were revived, and many of the questions I had wrestled with and given up on, now reared their heads again.

Once again, the advice being handed down from the Government is confusing and often conflicting – ‘Go to work’ – ‘Don’t go to work’, ‘go out and exercise’ – ‘don’t go to beauty spots and put local populations at risk’ – ‘meet one person outside’ – ‘don’t meet anyone in your garden’ (even if you have a huge garden and you are more easily able to socially distance in your garden than you might be in the local park.

When we have expectations and they are not met, we experience disappointment, resentment, anger and stress. It becomes hard to see another’s point of view and we polarise. Brexit is a classic case in point, bringing disharmony to families, friends, colleagues, neighbours.

When I realised that I would lost the bulk of my income, and that being self employed meant I had no safety net (remember it took the Government quite a while to agree to help the Self Employed, and even then the help was based on profits, not income, as it was for the employed), I was anxious and frightened. I am grateful for the years of learning I have gained through Coaching and being Coached. And of previous life experience.

Armed convoy in Rhodesia

My teens were spent on the border of Mozambique and what was then Rhodesia, and we spent years in a type of lockdown, where we could not leave town other than in an armed convoy. (And yes I still suffer from the guilt of the White African.)

But I knew that I had the skills and resilience to make it through this. And not only make it through – to learn useful lessons, to take time to turn in and deal with old hurts, to thrive.

But for many people in this country, those reserves have never been tested. The millennial generation have, by and large had things at their finger tips, and instant answers (and I realise this is a generalisation). So this has been the most incredible shock to the system. Being locked down has meant that all the ways in which we used to distract ourselves from difficulties, have been taken away. Our vulnerable underbellies have been exposed, and we have been afraid.

One thing I know without a shadow of a doubt – both from personal life experience, and from working with clients for 30 years, is that when we are afraid, we often don’t ‘behave well’. And ironically, we often behave in ways that actually prevent us from achieving what we are most needing and wanting. When we feel unheard, or unmet, we very often lash out, and sadly the result is usually that we are met with defensiveness, absence, or a brick wall, when what we desperately want is connection, understanding, empathy and care.

So what can we each do differently to get what we need. Einstein said that you cannot solve a problem with the same mindset that created it. I understand that to mean we need to change out mindset. Simple, perhaps, but by no means easy. Witness all the conflicts in the world. I often find it astonishing that we can invent such extraordinary things, and understand such complex issues outside ourselves and yet so few people I know, even otherwise extraordinarily intelligent people, seem to have so little control of their thoughts and judgments.

The work I do on myself is to find a way to live from courage and heart, rather than from fear and judgment. It is a work in progress. But by being able to pause, to be conscious of my habitual responses, to choose to act intentionally instead of from my unconscious habits, I have been enormously grateful to heal deep wounds in myself, and in my family relationships, and to provide a safe space for others to do that for themselves.

I have been privileged to run a Pilot of Action Learning (Peer Group Coaching) sets for a year with WRoCAH and CHASE students, and to witness the growth, development and resilience in those who committed themselves to this process. It is my considered belief that this way of working can greatly assist in developing the skills we need to find the way forward in this pandemic. In a sense the easy part is over. However hard, lockdown had a certainty about it. This next phase of a confusing movement into a ‘new normal’, brings about expectations and consequent disappointments, and in that, will challenge our peace of mind and resilience to a far greater degree. How will we navigate the conflicting needs and expectations of friends, family, lovers, colleagues, peers?

The principles of Deep Listening, of Respect, of trusting that each of us can find our way and our truth when supported to do, underpin the practice of Action Learning. These are much needed in these challenging times.

Another great man (in my opinion!), Leonard Cohen, said ‘There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in’. I believe that we can use the cracks in the fabric of our world right now, to let the light in – to find the way ahead, however obscure it may seem at the moment.

PARENTS’ PLANTS FOR HOPE


Here is a simple idea to give HOPE to elderly parents who are quarantined because of the Coronavirus crisis:

IF YOUR PARENT IS CAPABLE, GET A PLANT TO THEM AND TELL THEM THEY HAVE TO KEEP IT ALIVE UNTIL YOU CAN SEE EACH OTHER AGAIN – THIS IS A POWERFUL MESSAGE OF HOPE, AND GIVES THEM SOMETHING POSITIVE IN THE FUTURE TO FOCUS ON!

It’s Mother’s Day tomorrow. Like probably millions of other people, I am unable to see my mother, who will turn 91 at the end of the month. Her care home (in Cape Town) is in lockdown. In just a few days I have seen her go from an incredibly lucid, interested person, to someone who is quite often anxious and confused – her response to stress.

I understand this need for isolation, and I also worry what health costs that will bring. And selfishly, I dread the idea of my Mum dying out in Africa without either being able to be with her, or at the very least, being able to see to her things and give her a good send off.

I remembered reading about an experiment where 2 groups of elderly people were given a plant for a year. The first group were told that they were responsible for looking after the plant and keeping it alive for the year. The second group were told that they needn’t do anything for the plant – someone else would care for it. Unsurprisingly, at the end of the year, the survival rate of plants in the first group was significantly higher than that of the second.

The validity of the trial was later questioned, but I figured it was worth a shot. So one of my friends kindly bought and delivered a spathiphyllum plant (pictured above), to my Mum, and I told her that she had to keep it alive until we were able to see each other again. I only discovered later that the common name for this plant is ‘Peace Plant’, and it is purported to help clean the air! So it feels doubly apt!

March 28, 1953

I wrote in my last blog, that in times of uncertainty, it is good to take action where we are able. Of course, my action brings no guarantee of keeping my mother alive, but I have seen firsthand what hope has done for her already. My parents were married for 64 years, and my father was my mother’s world.

60th Anniversary, 2013

When he died in December 2016, I watched dismayed as she turned from an incredibly mobile, mentally agile, positive ‘polyanna’ sort, who always saw the positive side of things, to a little old lady who was miserable, became almost immobile, and really wanted to die.

90th Birthday, 31 March 2019

Last March she turned 90, and I organised a lunch to celebrate. I filled my luggage weight with a large birthday fruit cake, booked our favourite restaurant overlooking the sea, and invited friends of widely varying ages.

View from the restaurant

My mother came alive again! Knowing there were people who still cared about her and having something fun to plan for, kickstarted her vitality. Her memory seemed to improve, her sense of fun returned, and even her physical mobility improved. Up til then, she had not wanted to go much further than a km from her care home. I took her away on holiday to a complicated house by the sea, where she found her way around, and even brought me breakfast in bed one morning! A year previously I had had to help her dress and had thought she would never make 90.

Funky 90 year old on holiday in Hermanus!

So don’t underestimate the power of HOPE! It is something we all desperately need a good dose of in these dark and difficult times. Do what you can to keep it alive for both yourself and your loved ones.

And feel free to share your stories of hope with me!

Coronavirus: Some Practical Strategies for Dealing with Crisis and Uncertainty

Coronavirus has certainly raised the levels of global uncertainty and anxiety to heights that many people will not have experienced in their lifetime. Uncertainty, particularly over a prolonged period, can be very detrimental to our mental and emotional well being.

There is much online help and advice, so why am I writing this?

In my life I have experienced a number of crises and a great deal of uncertainty. I have learned strategies to deal with these through trial and (a great deal of) error. So I thought I would share them in case they helped any of you. For those of you who need to know my credentials, my story is at the end of this blog. Otherwise, read on! Skim the points, and choose what attracts you, or study in depth.

My first job after University was for a small Investment Firm in South Africa. The man who ran it is now the richest man in South Africa and I learned a lot from him.

He was a great advocate of the KISS principle: Keep it Simple, Stupid! Like many profound truths, these strategies are simple, but it doesn’t mean they are easy to implement – in particular when you are stressed.

  1. Take Action regarding things that are under your control

The feeling of being out of control is one that many of us find difficult, if not downright excruciating. So getting on with things that are under your control helps dissipate this feeling. Technically our +/-40,000 thoughts per day are under our control, yet we often find this is not the case. So the following help calm us enough to make this more possible.

  • Technology

Technology has become the backbone of our lives. It can either enable or disable us, depending on how we use it.

Here are the positives:

  • Communicate and connect

Renowned neuroscientist and author, Daniel Levitin recently gave a talk at the University where I work. According to him, research states that Happiness comes not from having a loved one, a special connection with someone who has your back, but through micro-connections: 2-3 short conversations per day, even with random strangers, can prevent you from feeling lonely. Technology is great for this! May I suggest calling/video calling, rather than texting. I don’t believe it has the same impact.

NOTE: I read somewhere that someone is collecting up old smartphones to donate to elderly isolated people so they can still see their loved ones. Great idea – could you facilitate/contribute?

  • Use good quality online learning resources. There are a myriad out there!
  • Learn something new – like a language. Since my daughter left for University and I have been living alone, I have been learning Italian on Duolingo. Apart from the enjoyment and sense of satisfaction, it has become the way I transition from work to an empty house – so much more satisfying than a glass of wine!
  • Join some online groups. I have been running a weekly meditation for a number of years at the University, and we are about to go online. Join us! http://www.creativetransformation.org.uk/talks-workshops/meditations/. I will update how to join an online group before next week. And there are many, many others, where people who think and who care can stimulate and encourage you.
  • BRAINSTORM! Another reason my first boss got so rich, was his attitude to crises. Crisis can either galvanise your imagination, creativity and resolve, or it can overwhelm you. As a firm, he ensured we did the former, and it is something I have tried to practice ever since. So every time there was a crisis anywhere in the world, he would call a brainstorming meeting to look for the opportunities that were always present in difficulty.

Here are the negatives:

·      I know, it’s obvious but I will still say it – don’t gorge on bad news. Treat it like medication – necessary and useful if you stick to a sensible dose, but otherwise potentially lethal. When you are tempted, play sudoku, scrabble, or call a friend.

·      Be careful about spreading panic/fake news. Think about where your communications are going, and if you are going to worry anyone in a vulnerable position.

  • Practice gratitude and Appreciation

The research shows this really works! And it works better if you actually write things down. Brené Brown, best selling author and researcher has interviewed tens of thousands of people. She talks of how the people who have survived great loss or trauma, are helped most by appreciating small daily things. And there is other research to show that writing to someone who has really helped you in the past, also increases your level of happiness. A 6 month research study of people who wrote a daily journal of 3 things they were grateful for showed that they were happier, more grateful and had less depression.

  • Nourish Yourself

This ties in with the above. What are the things in life that really bring you joy, laughter, pleasure? If you are going to stockpile during this time of coronavirus crisis, stockpile some of those things. Here are some of my favourites:

  • Nature

I find enormous solace in nature, and great need to continual renewal. One of my difficulties in the last month, when I was trying to decide whether to cancel my booked (and paid for!) holiday to Italy, was that I couldn’t get out into nature – I couldn’t go camping in the mountains because of consecutive weekends of brutal storms, and I couldn’t walk along the river because of the consequent flooding. I really noticed how much harder it was to de-stress. And of course, with the current crisis, many people are not going to be able to get out much into nature at all. But I brought nature indoors, filling my home with spring flowers – more later.

Life is what happens when we are making other plans

Grow something!

I realised when tending my bulbs in my small outdoor courtyard the other day, how deeply nourishing it is to be connected to things that are growing, blooming and being unaffected by this crisis. Head off to your local garden centre before they have to close, and stock up on spring plants, herbs, vegetables and seeds. Grow simple food like lettuce, get into your garden if you have one, and get a few house plants if you don’t.

  • Exercise

I am an ‘exercise outdoors’ kind of girl where possible, and am having to think of how to change those habits. Again, technology can help, because for sure exercise is vital to keep everything burning and ticking over well, if and when you can.

Creativity:

Just as the world wars spawned a plethora of new inventions and different ways of working or living, this crisis seems in some way reminiscent, and it can bring into creation all sorts of ideas that you have been gestating but being too frightened/busy/distracted, to do. Stock up on your painting equipment, your DIY equipment, materials, wool, family photographs and anything else that inspires your creativity! If you have room, make yourself a dedicated space where you can start messy projects and leave them without having to clear up! I have been meaning to do some video lessons, and podcasts for ages, if not years. Because I am the age I am, (and despite computer programming in my chequered past!) I have a huge resistance to this, but watch the space on my website. I want to be able to earn during this crisis, AND I want to contribute to the many many people who are going to struggle more than I will. So I am even planning on starting an Instagram account (😱😱) to share my more arty photos and some positive daily thoughts.

  • Use all your senses to the Full in nourishing yourself

I am a lover of sensuality – of all the senses. Here are some of the ways I nourish myself:

  • Sight

A short walk in nature, when I can, affords endless opportunities of noticing, of looking deeply, of seeing differently.

I love colour, and I love flowers, and so my home is currently filled with as many colourful flowers as I can afford.

Remember art? Remember books? Feast your eyes on beautiful images

  • Smell

Scented flowers! Herbs, oils, scented baths, perfume, scented skin creams

  • Sound

Make sound – sing! Play instruments. There are those wonderful videos of the Italians singing to one another from their balconies which make my heart sing. I saw a great video once of people all over the world who had got together remotely to make a music video. All my innovative music types, why don’t you write a song that can be sung round the world to bring us together?

Another thing that has been exercising my mind is how we can help those who are desperately ill and struggling to breathe not to panic so much, as that makes things so much worse. There has been research showing that playing music to patients under anaesthetic in operations decreases recovery time and levels of pain. Would it not be worth a try for those in intensive care? Again, my music types, what sort of music would best serve these purposes? Use your talents and strengths to make a difference!

  • Taste

Eat nourishing food, that is beautiful to the eye and the tongue. Living alone makes it easy not to eat well. I am taking the time in this crisis to shop, cook and eat more thoughtfully, and with greater enjoyment. Cook together at home if you can, learn new recipes, bake bread and do other things that require time and attention that you have been previously too busy to do.

  • Touch

This presents a particular problem in this crisis. I believe that touch is essential for our well being, and it is something that is being denied to many of us at the moment. When I work with people who are panicking, or are very anxious, one of the best ways to help them calm, is to work on the body. The mind runs away, but the body stays, and if I can help people to return to the body, it can help to settle the mind. When the body and breathing calm, the mind calms. When we are panicking, it is often difficult to deeply breathe – work on the body can help that enormously.

So for those of you who can touch, do!

  • Show affection to your loved ones
  • Explore massage
  • Make love, in the widest sense of the word (and obviously at the moment, only within a monogamous relationship with someone whom you know absolutely is not infectious)

For those of you who cannot, we need to learn ways to re-connect with our own bodies in order to both nourish ourselves generally and to help ourselves deal with anxiety.

  • Massage yourself
  • Dance
  • Do body-specific meditation (listen to the meditations on my website, link above)
  • Do Yoga, or other body practices, such as Tai Chi
  • When my students have Performance Anxiety, I get them to do strong poses, like a yoga warrior pose, and to stamp their feet to Zulu warrior music, or punch the air, and make sound – think of the All-Blacks’ Haka. When we are anxious, energy moves up the body, away from the feet and legs, and we need to bring it down.
  • Facetime a good coach and get them to work with you to help this. If you don’t have facetime/whatsapp, I have talked people through this process, and even texted them successfully through this process when they were too frightened to speak.
  • Think of ways to contribute to others

Again, research has shown that when we do acts of kindness, and help others, our own happiness and well being increases. Stay aware of others around you and be creative and imaginative in finding ways to create community and connection in the midst of this crisis.

  • Decide to use this as an opportunity for growth

Resilience and ‘growth mindset’ are common buzz words these days. But for sure, we have a choice as to how we approach this whole difficult situation. I am self employed. I have no backup. But I am fired up with ideas of how to help both myself and others, and that has changed my anxiety into energy and hope.

  • Keep a Daily Journal of your experiences

There is going to be much research that needs to be done about the wider impact of this whole crisis. I am particularly interested in the impact of social distancing, and how people deal. I would encourage you to keep a daily journal of things that work and things that don’t, of what triggers you, and what gives you hope and strength. This will potentially be of great value in learning how we can best prepare for the future.

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate
  • Stay in touch with others
  • Share positive messages
  • I am here, I offer online coaching for those who can still afford it, and for those who can’t, I am going to do my best to provide free resources for connection and positivity.
  • You can help me by sharing this blog widely if you feel it would be useful to anyone you know!

Wishing you all the best!

My Credentials for Dealing with Uncertainty

I have been no stranger to prolonged uncertainty in my life. I grew up in what was Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe, for those too young to have heard of Rhodesia). The country declared its Independence from Britain, which was not recognised, and from my childhood we had international sanctions imposed on us.

We became a nation of ‘make do and mend’. The life fostered a spirit of innovation, imagination and entrepreneurship. As children we had few toys, but we had great games.

My teenage years were spent largely on the Eastern Border of the country in the time of the bush war. We experienced years of relative lockdown. Our beloved nature, mountains and rivers, were out of bounds entirely. We could not leave town unless in an armed convoy. A bomb, (thankfully unexploded), landed in our school grounds.

People living nearest the border built bomb shelters and the rest of us created a ‘safe space’ in our house where we kept emergency rations. For years we went to bed at night with candles and tracksuits at the bottom of our beds, in case of attack. Fathers, brothers and boyfriends spent years being called up for active service for up to six weeks at a time, having to leave home and work to do so.

Those of us who remained behind suffered the anxiety of worry for their safety.

Friends died.

We have the opportunity to learn from our experiences, or to be overwhelmed by them. For me, that training has stood me in good stead for the rest of my life.

I have been self employed now for 30 years, through two recessions. That in itself has been a severe test of living with uncertainty. I have also moved continents, countries, counties and cities, remaking my life and work as I went. Add to that a very stressful divorce and single parenting a daughter, and I feel I have the credentials for authentic information gathering!

Offers

  • During this crisis I am offering online coaching for those who can afford it. For those who cannot, I am developing some free resources which I will offer via my website, www.creativetransformation.org.uk
  • From Monday 23/3, I will be doing a free online weekly warm up and meditation. Email or text me to join in from wherever you are in the world. Let me know if you want me to do another at a time more convenient for you. If I can, I will.
  • I have spent two years running Action Learning (Peer group) coaching for PhD students nationally, and taught the principles internationally up to University Exec level. If you are interested in starting a virtual group for support during this time, please get in touch.
  • Please share with anyone who might find this useful.
  • Thanks!

Celebrating Growth & Blossoming

An unusually early start to my day allowed time for reflection, and I wanted to share this journal entry from last summer. It reminds me of the ebb and flow of life, and how despair can turn to joy. I am so happy to be able to report that practising the strategies I refer to in this journal has allowed meaningful and helpful change in my way of thinking and being, which in turn has opened wonderful new connections, work opportunities and ways of dealing with conflict! I am reminded of a card I bought 10 years ago when I was finding my life particularly difficult:

NEVER, NEVER, NEVER GIVE UP!

MINDFULNESS COURSE JOURNAL SEPTEMBER 2018

What matters to me?
To connect to beauty, kindness and love. To be able to be meaningfully with myself and others without judgement and constant criticism. To know joy viscerally and find a community and sense of belonging, which is not possible without the above. To be able to fully support my daughter, Which is also not possible without the above. To have meaning and purpose. To help others. To nourish myself and others without depleting the world and its resources. To create. Art and words and something lasting. To leave an imprint on the world of something that brings joy and peace and meaning to others. To be able to handle conflict in such a way that allows me to be intimate with at least one other human being, and to be connected to many others. To allow myself to be fully myself and fully human so that I can allow others to be the same. To live from the heart and courage and not from fear.

What drew me to this work?

The knowledge that my inner critic is so powerful and keeps on destroying my ability to pause, to be present, to be kind and loving to myself and others. Understanding that I need a daily practice to help me change this long term.

Reflections

I see clearly how my own thoughts shape and determine my life. I see how, without anything changing externally, what I tell myself about myself or my life or my worth or my relationships with others sets the tone for my day, my week, my life.

I see clearly that when I judge and criticise, I effectively paralyse myself, I throw a black blanket over my inner light, I create a self fulfilling prophecy of misery and worthlessness. I become someone nobody wants to spend time with, least of all me, who is stuck with myself, and can only get away by numbing, avoiding, sleep, tv, games or smoking. And I see how this can become a perpetuating cycle.

I understand how difficult it is to press the pause button. After all, that is one of the basic tenets of Alexander Technique and I managed to avoid it entirely for all my three year training and beyond, and now I know about it, but spend huge quantities of time without actually pressing it. And I know and see clearly that the first step is awareness and the second step is to press pause, and without that step, my life continues to hurtle along the trajectory of habitual pattern that is seemingly locked into my system.

I also see and have practical experience of how using that pause button can allow real and practical change – can alter the trajectory of my direction and life.

And it has taken me all summer of internal wrestling and wrangling, despite the best efforts of friends to remind me that it is not the way, to arrive at this Sunday morning prepared to stop and pause. It has taken terror, and hopelessness and despair and frustration and listlessness and overwhelm for me to arrive at this place.

But I am here, and I am grateful. And I commit to coming back to this place each day to practise pausing and connecting……


RE-EMERGENCE & GUEST BLOG OF THE ‘SWITCH OFF & CONNECT’ PHD RETREAT

It’s Spring and I’m emerging from a winter of not being very visible! Having re-read my last blog, written while being ill and still processing the departure of my daughter to University, I am happy to report that much has been going on underground this winter, and Spring has brought all that growth to the surface!

Still, I realise that when one gets out of the habit of doing things – (for me this winter, that has been rowing and blogging), there is a great deal of inertia to overcome in beginning the process once more. I have written many blogs in my head, but have somehow felt I needed to have something profound to say after such a long break.

I am delighted that I can leave that job to my guest blogger, Marc Yeats, PhD candidate, artist and composer extraordinaire.

One of the many flowerings this spring, has been the realisation of a long-held dream of running a retreat in the Lake District mountains! I dared to book an amazing house a year ago, and then bottled planning it for quite a while.

I invite you to join Marc on a journey to the wilds of the Lake District and the wilds of the self!

Dalemain Bungalow, Martindale, Cumbria May 7–10, 2019.

Arriving at a wet Penrith train station on a dark and cold day in May ready to spend four days in a remote Cumbrian valley without electricity, WiFi or mobile phone signal with a group of unfamiliar people to talk about personal PhD concerns wouldn’t be everyone’s idea of fun or a useful thing to do, not least when PhD life is so busy and time so precious.

We (the assembled group of five participants) were driven from the station deep into the Lake District until we reached a track that took us to the Dalemain Bungalow (the higher building in the photo below) that is situated on a small spur near the head of Martindale away from any habitation, the road, shops or any signs of civilisation apart from numerous sheep. The Bungalow was impressive and imposing. During the 10-minute walk up from the road we felt dwarfed by the scale of the surrounding landscape, an immensity of valleys, mountains, rivers and sky culminating in a location that was isolated from all twenty-first century distractions. Our excitement and expectation were palpable.

The Bungalow itself is charming and rustic, with gas lighting, heating, cooking and gas fridges. Most bedrooms and bathrooms are shared and there is a large kitchen and communal lounge/dining area. The building is pine-panelled throughout making for a slightly dark buy cosy feel within. There are windows in all the rooms that look out onto the hills – the views are simply stunning – and the building has a veranda on three sides. External sounds comprise sheep – always sheep – the many rivers and rivulets, the rustling of trees and bird song. That’s it. No traffic, just natural sounds. Living is a little like glamping and largely communal. If you need en suite bathrooms and fitted carpets, this location isn’t for you.

Cooking, prep and washing up were communal activities. There was more food than we could eat and plenty to freely snack on in between meals if you so wished. The days were structured thus: silent breakfast (much more fun than it sounds), morning stretch and meditation (meditation and stretching anyone can participate in), voice work (always fun and often profoundly surprising) pre and post lunch Action Learning Sets (concentrated and powerful), individual Alexander Technique and natural voice-work sessions followed by free time and food preparation and more free time. There were also guided walks on offer

I hadn’t ever participated in something like this before – a retreat – and always avoided anything labelled as such for fear of communes, dodgy spiritual leaders and endless New Age rhetoric with crystals. Although I had attended an Action Learning taster workshop in London a few months earlier, the whole Action Learning experience was still a new and relatively unfamiliar concept. Combining a ‘retreat’ with Action Learning was an activity I hadn’t envisaged engaging with but when I saw what was proposed and the location in which the retreat was based, I realised it was something I ought to try, not least because the outcomes looked very useful in relation to my PhD life. Overall, I was more concerned about being without social media and connectivity, something I always had access to. As it transpired, I didn’t miss connectivity for that period of time and without the distraction found myself listening more deeply to my own thoughts and particularly what others were saying. This was part of active listening. It changed how I felt.

The retreat objectives stated that by the end of the experience, participants would be able to question the veracity of their thoughts and beliefs in order to make more informed choices about behaviour; use their bodies to check on the impact of beliefs and emotions; use these strategies to improve their well-being and performance on their PhD journeys; use vocal and movement exercises to shift unhelpful moods; and call on support from the connections formed within the cohort to ease the sense of isolation often reported in Action Learning groups.

The Action Learning Retreat is the brainchild of Julie Parker, BSc, MSTAT. Julie facilitates the Action Learning Sets and offers individual Alexander Technique sessions and Natacha Dauphin, Julie’s co-workshop leader offers voice-work sessions. Julie describes Action Learning in her Action Learning Sets Handbook, quoting from Action Learning Handbook, McGill and Brockbank 2004 as: “[…] a continuous process of learning and reflection that happens with the support of a group or ‘set’ […] working on real issues, with the intention of getting things done. She continues: “The collaborative process, which recognises set members’ social context, helps people take an active stance towards life [and] overcome the pressures of life and work […]”.

Getting things done, as mentioned above, is important to me. Knowing that I faced inevitable and identified challenges in my PhD journey, especially from factors outside my control, and knowing too that the way I dealt with those challenges would contribute to my sense of well-being, I decided to invest four days away from my PhD routine to equip myself for the PhD challenges ahead in a productive and informed way. I made this investment because I appreciated that it is easy to slip into a range of familiar and often self-defeating patterns of behaviour and thought, especially when busy and stressed and things are not going to plan. These thoughts can become embedded if not challenged and increase levels of anxiety that in turn decreases clear-thinking, productivity and a sense of well-being. As I discovered, Action Learning processes along with the Alexander Technique and natural voice work exercises helped participants (and me) to open up, examine and discuss these thoughts and processes of behaviour in a safe, trustful and friendly group setting. This opening up and sharing of thoughts helped clarify why such patterns of behaviour occur and help the individual to take a different, more balanced perspective on their situations and what to do about them, leading to more informed choices and a greater sense of well-being.


I’m convinced from my own experiences and the experiences discussed and observed among others in the group that different people, different personalities, respond in varied ways to body, voice or cognitive interventions and processes employed to positively rebalance mental well-being. For example, the body through its stresses, strains and posture exhibits, often unconsciously, an externalisation of one’s inner emotional world. Inversely, the body (and voice) can be used to access that inner emotional world without recourse to cognitive gateways such as reasoning, conversation or intellectual understanding to bypass various levels of cognition to reach subconscious levels of disharmony through changing posture and using vocal sounds and movement. There is something visceral and primal about vocal and movement work that accesses the inner self at a profound level that can affect change of mood with little conscious attention. It is this direct access to our emotional core that makes voice and movement work so potent and when combined with Action Learning and Alexander Techniques give participants a range of tools and approaches to maintain well-being that best suits them as individuals. Such opportunities to take stock, to have the undivided attention of a supportive group of individuals where attention and care is, for a time at least, focused on one’s needs and circumstances are rare indeed. This focus is amplified by the location and conditions of the retreat where all external distractions are unavailable and people have to communicate and listen to one another and crucially, listen to ourselves in profoundly deep ways that are difficult to achieve within the hurly-burly of daily lives and particularly the pressures of PhD life.

Great care was taken by Julie and Natacha to support us all as individuals. Nothing was ever forced, and no one made to participate in any activity at any time if they felt they did not wish to. All activities and all aspects of communal living were undertaken with flexibility and mutual respect for others, their needs and wishes. Everything about the retreat and its activities were geared around the individual: this was particularly evident within the Action Learning sessions where everything moved forwards at the pace set by the participants and within the individual Alexander Technique and voice work sessions, every effort was made to support the subjects in ways most appropriate to them.

Challenges around PhDs are legion and shared by us all at some time. I speculate that for every person that openly discusses these issues many more do not speak of them or disguise their difficulties and have no idea how to best manage their stresses and strains. Knowing that I am not alone in experiencing PhD-related anxieties is a comfort and this comfort is amplified by the honest and candid discussion of PhD challenges shared by others in the retreat Action Learning group, most of whom I did not previously know or know to any great extent. The very close, personal and honest communication shared by members of the Action Learning group has established as a set of people whom I can rely on and communicate with as and when is necessary.

The same applies to Julie Parker and Natacha Dauphin workshop leaders (Natacha above with me and cake), as firm, supportive friendships have been established. It is difficult to come away from an experience like the retreat having shared such personal and significant information with others and not feel a profound sense of connection to those with whom the process and journey was shared. These are people I know I can reach out to at any time.

I came away from the retreat feeling refreshed and renewed on many different levels. I also felt positive about my ability to manage the inevitable stresses that were coming my way as well as managing how I reacted to the situations that I had no control over within the PhD process where these situations are the primary causes of stress. I gained strategies through the Action Learning group sessions, their interactions, suggestions and outcomes and also through the Alexander Technique sessions and natural voice workshops where all three areas of communication and investigation relate easily and seamlessly to one another to generate an overarching environment that provides the tools and the understanding around how to use them that together will help improve my performance on the PhD journey. The retreat delivered on its proposed outcomes completely.

If you have the opportunity to participate in a retreat like this, do take it, you won’t regret investing time in yourself and your well-being and if you feel you’re just too busy to take part, you’re probably most in need of the experience.

On getting ill, Vulnerability and Taking Stock

  There is nothing like getting ill for raising the feeling of Vulnerability when you’re self employed! Especially when it comes out of nowhere and you think your immune system is rock solid.

The interesting thing about this week of not working and not feeling up to much though, is that it has made me think about one of my favourite enemies – SHOULD.

It’s a word I ban in my teaching room, yet being solitary and incapable made me realise just how much space I still allow it in my own life, and particularly since my daughter left for University.

I think any big change in life circumstances calls us to take stock, and with good reason, but here is (some of) my list of ‘shoulds’ that have been sharing my bed and head since she left and I have reviewed the 7 years since we came to York:

I SHOULD HAVE …..

  • worked harder
  • studied more
  • made more money
  • been more successful
  • recycled more
  • cooked better food
  • taken more care of the planet
  • kept the house tidier
  • been a better role model to my daughter
  • dared to try and have another relationship
  • practised the piano more
  • helped her practise her music and with her timbale lessons
  • encouraged her to play more sport
  • encouraged her to act
  • helped the needy
  • volunteered more
  • complained less about poor service in restaurants (🙄 really??)

OMG no wonder my immune system was under attack with all that lot going on.  And what a relief to have to let go of it all and just sleep, and almost feed myself and definitely not tidy the house! Talk about physician heal thyself! Because of course it became blindingly obvious to me that I much preferred being with this gentler, more tolerant me than the me with the big stick and long list, and for sure the big stick didn’t make me achieve very much more, just made me and I bet my poor daughter, fearful and miserable and bowed down and unwilling to try, to take risks, or as my wise Safari guide friend says, to Dance with Life.

One of my other wise friends asked how I was doing with vulnerability because he didn’t think I was going to make much progress until I was willing to embrace it a bit more.  Interestingly I couldn’t really answer the question, because I have been so busy hiding from it that it hadn’t really come up!

Of course I have had the excuse of having to make a living in a small place where everyone knows pretty much everything and I couldn’t afford to make mistakes because it could cost my reputation and my job, etc etc. Doesn’t mean I have managed to avoid making mistakes anyway, interestingly- just haven’t deliberately put myself in their way.

So now I find myself looking back on 7 years where I started out enthusiastically with high hopes thinking I could crack this and make a wonderful new life for me and my daughter, and realising that 7 years have gone by, and I have done some stuff, and we’re still afloat, which is something, considering, but in the major life choices department, I have not danced with my life, more like hobbled on crutches, and then I have got angry with myself for hobbling, and knocked the crutches out of my hands….

Hmmmmm. …..Old habits die hard, and as I regain my strength, I can see that the voice of SHOULD is waiting for air time and the slightest opportunity.

So this next little while is going to be interesting as I see if I can find a different way of being with myself, talking to myself, and flexing the muscles of compassion  instead of self judgment….

SHOULD WE STOP TALKING ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH?

SHOULD WE STOP TALKING ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH?

There is a national realisation that mental ill-health is on the increase and needs our attention. This is true. But should we be talking about Mental Health per se? Here is why I am asking the question:

A new University student who is perhaps introverted and does not enjoy drunkenness may sit alone in her room feeling lonely and anxious. Another may go out ‘socialising’ each night and binge drink. Does it mean that the mental health of the first student is more in question than that of the second? What about the work colleague who has started to come in a bit late sometimes or isn’t paying so much attention to her appearance? Do we equate this to laziness or to mental health? Are we truly paying attention to ourselves and to those around us?

Up until recently if you went to the doctor with an ache or pain, and the diagnosis was ‘psychosomatic’, the underlying assumption was that it wasn’t real. Nowadays there is a much greater understanding of the interaction of mind, body and emotions. The physical pain is extremely real, although caused or aggravated by psychological factors. Psychosomatic is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as ‘caused or aggravated by a mental factor such as internal conflict or stress’ and ‘relating to the interaction of mind and body’.

I trained to teach the Alexander Technique (AT), which is based on the premise that the use of the whole self (body, mind and emotions) affects function. It is taught using gentle manual guidance with verbal instruction to help the person understand and work with unhelpful habits, be those physical, mental or emotional.

I have been working as an Associate at The University of York for six years now but prior to this I worked for several years in the NHS at the practice of a forward thinking GP, Dr Gavin Young. The doctors would often refer the patients with physical ailments who were not responding to conventional treatment. I discovered that many of the patients whom they had referred with intractable neck pain had lost a parent in the preceding year. This was a surprise to them, though not to me.

In the nearly 30 years that I have worked with AT, I have seen time and again, that people who suppress or repress mental and emotional pain, often manifest psychological issues in physical symptoms. The English are well known for their stiff upper lip and ‘keep calm and carry on approach’. It is easier to call in sick because you have excruciating neck pain and headaches than to tell your manager that you can’t come in to work because you are grieving the death of your mother.

I worked with another person at the GP surgery who was in great physical pain, but described herself as a hugely positive person. Over a period of months, we worked physically to relieve the pain, with little success, and at the same time, I probed gently into the incongruencies of positivity and pain. Eventually this person was able to tell me something she had never been able to share before, or even truly admit to herself, that she had been abused.

Once she was able to access and acknowledge this memory, true healing was able to begin, both in her body, and through counselling support offered by the GP practice. It is my contention that purely physical therapy alone would never have worked for this patient, because her pain was so deeply rooted in emotional trauma. However, I very much doubt that she would have been able to acknowledge the abuse without the body work and gentle questioning, for the simple reason that she could only acknowledge the physical pain, and was not presenting with a ‘mental health’ problem.

Professor Nickolaas Tinbergen was the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1973. He devoted half of his acceptance speech to extolling the virtues of the Alexander Technique and its impact on his life. He said ‘this story of perceptiveness, intelligence and persistence shown by a man without medical training [Frederick Alexander’s], is one of the great epics of medical research and practice.’ He described how he and his family had decided to test some of the seemingly fantastical claims. They found, after only a few months, ‘striking improvements in such diverse things as oedema due to high blood pressure, breathing, depth of sleep, overall cheerfulness and mental alertness, resilience against outside pressures and also in such a refined skill as playing a stringed instrument.’

Interestingly, 45 years on, terms such as mental alertness and resilience are widely used in discussion and approaches to mental health.

Tinbergen confirmed from personal experience that ‘many types of underperformance and even ailments, both mental and physical, can be alleviated, sometimes to a surprising extent, by teaching the body musculature to function differently.’ Advances in neuroscience since this time have elucidated further how the brain and body interact positively in this process to explain the ‘surprising extent’ of these improvements. My practice has reflected Tinbergen’s experience. Follow-up questionnaires, immediately after a 10 week treatment plan and 1 year post-treatment, indicated that the majority of patients from my work in the GP surgery found AT to be of ‘considerable help’ or ‘totally sorted’ their problems. Anecdotally, most patients reported to me that if it had not sorted their original presenting problem, it had helped them manage their lives more effectively.

As a result of this work, I realised that what I was doing via AT could also be understood to include, what is now called, Life Coaching. I trained in Relational Dynamic Life Coaching, and have found this to be a powerful synthesis with AT. (Relational Dynamics- the art of interaction with self and others www.relationaldynamics.co.uk)

My understanding based on experience is that the mind and body either act to support or to destabilise the other. Changing thoughts and beliefs can have a powerful effect on the body, just as releasing physical tension and improving physical functioning can free up the mind and give self-empowerment. Being able to work with people via these two techniques has enabled me to enhance overall well-being, not just ‘mental health’ or ‘physical health’. We can approach well-being via either working with the body (physical therapies) or mind (psychological ‘talking’ therapies). My conviction is that a combination of the two can be most powerful.

But, to return to my title, should we even be talking about mental health? In making a distinction between mental health and other health issues, we risk falsely attributing some issues to the purely mental sphere, and the stigma which is commonly associated with mental ill-health. We are all people comprised of bodies and minds, which are deeply affected by our emotions. Are we not missing a trick by failing to approach health as a synthesis of body and mind states?

If we understand that health and ill-health is a matter of the whole person, we can better identify these people and offer appropriate help. But if we separate the ‘mental’ from the ‘physical’ we are likely only to treat the symptoms and not the cause, or at the very least a contributing factor. In this I think we are failing to provide healthcare that meets the needs of the population.

We need a healthcare service that acknowledges how the body and mind impact each other and makes better use of the whole of ourselves to prevent and treat ill-health.

In my opinion, this means dropping the ‘mental health’ label and ensuring our conversations, concerns and treatments are about Health.

Julie Parker BSc, MSTAT
ILM level 7 equivalent accredited Coach
Www.creativetransformation.org.uk
https://www.facebook.com/creativetransformationuk/

Disclaimer: These are my personal views and do not represent the views of any organisation

Advice to my Daughter after two weeks at University

” Think of it like the sea – there will always be another wave and another high tide – sometimes you just have to wait”
When I was growing up in Africa, we used to go on holiday to the seaside for 3-6 weeks. Apart from anything else, it used to take a week of 8 hour a day driving to get there and back, so it didn’t seem worth it to go for less!
My brother and I were avid body surfers, and we spent hours and hours in the ocean, much of it waiting for the next perfect wave to surf
The first ‘wave’ of excitement is over, exhaustion has set in, and the real hard work of study has begun. It’s easy to feel discouraged, homesick and missing one’s special friends. But the next wave will come if you are patient….

THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX AND CARPE DIEM!

I stopped at one of the services on the M4 on last, wet, grey Sunday morning en route to taking my daughter to Uni in Bristol.

The queue at Costa Coffee was 11 deep, but I noticed that there was another Costa coffee round the corner.  Taking the decision that the queue round the corner was likely to be shorter, I slipped out of my place in the queue and found myself behind just one man, who looked strangely familiar…

My Facebook friends will know that the Carpe Diem bit of this story was to sidle up and ask if I was talking to a Stanley Tucci lookalike or the real deal. It was the real deal (‘A’ List Hollywood movie star), and turns out he was also taking his daughter to University and we had a convivial chat. My daughter was dead impressed and will carry that as a particular memory of her trip to Uni.

Now I realise this is all terribly shallow, but I think there are two important lessons I took away from the encounter.

1. THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX

If I wasn’t keeping my mind and eyes open, I would not have spotted that there was an alternative to the queue I was standing in, nor taken the decision to move

2. CARPE DIEM

I could have been backwards in coming forwards, and missed an opportunity to create a fun and unique memory for my daughter.

Although the outcome of taking these decisions in this case was not earth shattering, like many simple principles, these are profound in their possibilities.

In my life, some of the biggest changes have come about because I was prepared to do one or both of the above. Sometimes the risks have been much greater than they were here, and yet often the rewards way outweigh the risks we are asked to take in living life more fully, whatever that may mean to each of us….

I would love to hear about your ‘Carpe Diem’ moments, seized or lost!

TRANSITIONS & NEW BEGINNINGS – NAVIGATING CHOPPY WATERS

It is the time of year for transitions and new beginnings – new class, new school, new University. A time for looking forward to the new and letting go of the old.

For some, it will be exciting, and for others terrifying, and for most of us, a mixture of the two.

For me it is a time of contemplating the opportunities and sadness that comes with an emptying nest, as my daughter makes her way to a new beginning at University.

This last summer I took her for the first time, back to my roots – to Zimbabwe, where one of our adventures was to raft the mighty Zambezi – the toughest one day white water in the world.

I’ve  done it before and know what can go wrong, which actually only makes it doubly terrifying! Coupled with that, my daughter’s father had sent me a news clip of a woman being taken by a crocodile not so long ago on the same venture. He was  convinced I was taking my daughter to her death…..

We  survived, but the pictures show how rough it was, how I came out  of the boat in the roughest rapid, but managed to cling on…unlike the Ozzie in the neighbouring raft, which flipped, and he got sucked into a whirlpool and nearly drowned..

The unknown is so often scary, and these days it is always possible to find horror stories of the dangers that lie ahead. I have been anxious, contemplating this next phase of my life, even though I know it could be a great adventure.

I have been grateful to a friend who has sent me good thoughts each morning and I thought that for the rest of this month I will do a short ‘thought for the day’. Maybe it will help some of you who are navigating new and possibly choppy waters. At least it will set me daily on a positive path

So here is my thought for today:

“It is not required that we know all of the details about every stretch of the river. Indeed, were we to know, it would not be an adventure, and I wonder if there would be much point in the journey.”
Jeffrey R. Anderson

 

 

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