Peace. Last Easter I spent the afternoon at my church, The Well, lost in a series of contemplative exercises designed by their urban monastic group. There was a labyrinth, a beautiful micro garden with a tomb, and a station for creating something symbolic of a gift, from God, for us to take with us.
I used to write a lot of poetry, but rather curiously when I started my training as a therapist, my urge to write faded. I suspect it’s because working as a therapist, at least for me, is a real art form of scouring and making creative use of language for the perfect expression of inner experience.
But on several occasions now when I’ve made a personal retreat to be with God, my soul has responded with poetry.
This is what I wrote that day, from God to me, in the midst of my life-long inability to rest, find peace, and just be. I wrote it on the outside of the little gift bag I created for myself. This bag fell off my shelf twice last week, a year on, in the midst – yet again – of a lot of stress and my inability to rest and just be.
My Gift to You…
This is my gift to you, my love.
You don’t have to finish anything. Because It Is Finished.
You don’t have to save yourself,
Or anybody else.
Because you are all now saved In me.
There is no rush.
Because death has been defeated.
Let the angels roll back the rock
Behind which you think you are entombed,
To reveal only space.
It is time to sit in the garden.
Not ashamed, or guilty, that you weren’t crucified.
I think the best bit of the workshop design is the Sunday morning walking in nature meditation over my beautiful Riddlesdown, and yesterday was the practice run.
And I can say without hyperbole that it was the best three hours of the last two months.
The approach we’ll be exploring during the workshop is all about reconnecting with our physical bodies, using the breath, in nature, and with an openness to encountering something sacred, something greater than ourselves, and yet within ourselves, closer than our own thoughts. Something that can comfort and guide those of us who live with daily anxiety and have learned to be afraid of the physical sensations of fear. Something that some people choose to call God, although many struggle with that word for lots of very good reasons. It’s about discovering what gets in the way of having a relationship with our own Divinity. It’s about finding new ways of understanding what loving advice God might have for us in any given moment if we learn to tune in.
Because the workshop is partly and unashamedly about #CwG – conversations with God – I could say that interest is, er, minimal! I suppose for most people it’s hard to imagine a workshop that’s anything to do with “God” without being religious or close-minded. It’s almost impossible to represent my own liberal and inclusive view in the promotional material. Perhaps I should have called it something else.
Until yesterday, I was starting to really worry about having to cancel and reschedule.
But as I was walking, enjoying and refining the meditation process myself, I realised that, if it weren’t for the prospect of running the workshop in three weeks, I probably wouldn’t be out in nature giving myself three uninterrupted hours of grounding meditation and connection with myself, my body, my soul or my God. And right now, especially only seven weeks after the motorbike crash, I really need this time, because neither my body nor my mind has recovered yet. Similarly, if it weren’t for the rotten pain in my right hip, I’d probably be doing the walk at a lick, instead of really slowing down and connecting with what I was being shown.
At the end of the mind-focused meditation, I was given the bricks covered in moss in the photo, and it has me wondering whether some of my ways of thinking about things, which I think of as part of my true nature and identity, are in fact “man-made” – constructions, survival adaptations, that have been in place so long that it’s easy to miss their true nature.
At the start of the body-sensation-focused meditation, where we really connect with what it’s like to feel fear in our bodies, I was given this absolutely perfect confirmation of the whole message of the workshop – that we have lived trying to stay out of, keep away from, the cliff edge of fear, that we avoid it, fence it off, but it doesn’t work. And yet when we look past the danger sign, and are willing to explore what lies beyond it, there is a peaceful place, dappled in sunlight, waiting for us.
During the emotion-focused meditation, I was standing at the bottom edge of an entirely hedge-contained meadow, feeling a gentle swell of sadness behind the sensations of fear I was working with, and was ‘given’ a word that I have probably never used in my life, and which will make people who know me laugh out loud. Modesty. And so I’m reflecting on it, turning it over metaphorically in my hand. What would a modest attitude to the workshop look like? A modest attitude to my anxiety? Am I trying to provide “the” definitive answer for anxiety sufferers by taking them into nature? “The” definitive perspective on faith? Or is this one cluster of ideas, that might be useful for some people, and maybe even just important for me, in my faith journey and relationship with fear?
During the intuition-focused meditation I noticed I was not feeling renewed like I usually am by the time I get to the final round of breaths. I was on a very straight, well-maintained path, there were more people, I could see a car park ahead, and I felt frustrated that the practice “wasn’t working”. I wanted to be further back, where I’d felt more solitary, and where the view was more natural. I wondered what God might be telling me about my relationship with my intuition. Maybe I don’t like its straight-talking. I wondered what my intuition itself was telling me. Maybe I need less time around people than I allow, and even more time alone in nature myself. Or maybe whilst I think I like directness, cutting to the chase, getting on with it, actually what I love is mystery, meandering, and not knowing what’s around the curve in the path or over the stile.
Just as I was accepting my frustration, having passed what I had assumed was the end point on my planned route, I arrived at a Corporation of London drinking fountain. A beautiful and old-fashioned but fully working limestone stand with a working tap and cool flowing water. I was curious. If intuition is fire in the elemental model, then water is the emotions. I remembered the Buddhist teaching about the bird with one wing which flies in a circle; about the need to balance wisdom with compassion lest it be brutal (and compassion with wisdom lest it become collusive). I’ve been working a lot with my fire recently, and it’s been necessary, but it is also probably time to remember that trying to fight everyone, and let them know what they’re getting wrong, is not going to get me where I want to be.
I had a drink, I imagined all of us on the workshop stopping to have a drink, and to splash our faces and rinse off our hands, and all of a sudden the walk felt complete. I felt refreshed, inpsired, and convinced again that, regardless of anyone else needing this workshop, I need it.
“Grammar; the difference between knowing your shit and knowing you’re shit.” That one always cracks me up.
But actually it’s not just grammar, is it?
In the last few weeks I’ve said a few times that if I could ban one experience from the face of the planet it would be the experience of shame. That #impostersyndrome thing. “I don’t really belong in this circle”, “Who do I think I’m kidding?”, “What I said / did / what I’m trying to do is just stupid and everyone else can see that.” A client once described the experience of being in shame as “like being covered in black, sticky tar”.
I thought that was spot on.
Just this weekend, I ended up confiding in a trusted friend and colleague about a crisis of confidence I was having. When she told me how she sees me, professionally, and what she thinks of me, I had this thought:
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all just get a glimpse from time to time of how other people see us?”
But I take that back.
The most inspiring book I’ve read in recent years is Brene Brown’s “Daring Greatly”, all about shame, #vulnerability and #connectedness. My experience with my friend reminded me of it. If I could have stepped into my friend’s perception of me, it probably would have helped put the gremlins back in their box. But in the process I would have missed out on something really precious; an experience of kind connectedness with another person, made possible only by my vulnerability with her, necessitated in turn by my experience of shame.
If I hadn’t been feeling covered in black sticky tar, I wouldn’t now be feeling clearer about my #selfworth AND kindly connected with another good person. So now, to the extent that the feeling of shame can serve as a doorway to deeper connection with trusted people, I’m not so sure about wanting to “ban” it.
Of course there are lots of ways and reasons to connect with others, but isn’t it true that there’s something about the type of connectedness that comes when a person in distress allows someone to be there for them, that is unique and heart opening? Longing for emotional self-sufficiency is understandable, especially for anyone who knows only too well what it’s like to be vulnerable about something difficult and either get ridiculed or just ignored. I’ve worked with a painful number of people who come to me because, frankly, a professional who is paid to understand and be kind is the only person they could risk being vulnerable with.
All of this puts me in mind of venom and anti-venom.
It was being systematically shamed, THEN, that made us shame prone, that broke our sense of safe connectedness with others, and taught us to hide our vulnerability behind #masks of confidence, cynicism, or “I don’t give a shit”.
But part of the cure is feeling shame, when it arises NOW, and “daring greatly” to share it with people who have proven we can trust them. And not only does that start to build up our immunity, over time, to shame attacks, but it gives us back something just as precious as our self worth.
It gives us a feeling of connectedness with other good people.
In Search of a Higher Power, In Search of Ourselves
“EXPLORING THE FOUR DIRECTIONS”
29-30th April 2017 Purley Quaker Meeting House
(only £50 for the weekend)
Are you in recovery and longing for a deeper connection with a Higher Power?
Or do you suffer with anxiety and wish you could experience more peace?
Perhaps you’ve been searching for a spiritual path or practice but you’re feeling lost?
Could painful experiences in your early life have stopped you from connecting with “something greater than yourself”?
Or maybe you’re just sick of busy-ness and feeling distracted, and wish you could slow down.
If you identify with any of these thoughts, then this two-day non-residential retreat at the end of April could be for you.
Limited to only six participants, this will be a gentle, creative and most of all ‘embodied’ exploration of spirituality.
We will experiment together with a body-based meditation and prayer practice I developed to help me connect with myself and with a God of my own understanding, and to cope with anxiety. The practice invites us to journey up and down, then left and right, within our physical bodies, and discover what wisdom is waiting there. On the Sunday morning we will take the basics of this practice into nature and enjoy a walking meditation together over beautiful Riddlesdown.
My name is Claire van den Bosch and I have a transpersonally oriented psychotherapy practice in London. I’ve been in addiction recovery since 2004, have been working with individual clients since 2009, am healing from c-PTSD / relational trauma, and have been spiritually seeking since I was a child, exploring Christianity (C of E, Baptist and Quaker), Buddhism, Sufism, the Hindu Advaita tradition, and many “New Age” and alternative philosophies. This workshop design draws heavily on Jungian alchemical and elemental work and gestalt methodology, as well as the ancient wisdom of the chakra system.
I would guess that 80% of the people I’ve ever worked with have spent a significant number of sessions sharing with me their longing to live somewhere other than London so they could experience peace more regularly. Some of my clients have even moved overseas to find a better quality of life. At least that’s why they said they were moving 😉
Most of us on the self-development / recovery trail have heard repeatedly that fantasy usually lies beneath the stories that we tell ourselves that start with the phrase “I’ll be happier when…”
“I’ll be happier when – I live in the countryside / by the sea / in a hut up a mountain”.
“I’ll be happier when – I’m earning £40k / work for myself / retire / get the Director position”
“I’ll be happier when – I meet my soul mate / get my divorce”
The universal wisdom is that the thing we have the most control over is our inner state, that happiness / peace is an internal condition, that the truly wise learn to turn within, in any environment, and cultivate peace regardless of their surroundings and situations. And I’m not disagreeing. If we wait until all the conditions are right and for peace to come to us, we’ll be in for a long wait. And wherever you go, you’re going to take your head with you, and when the problem is the way your head works, then… Fortunately, we are blessed to live in this age – there are so many tools to be found in the positive psychology movement, and in the realm of CBT, and we have unprecedented freedom to explore spiritual traditions that appeal to us for practices that help us experience well-being regardless of our circumstances.
And yet, this morning in particular, I got a first-hand dose of the need for really skilful navigation of the waters of self-help-tools. Since my motorbike crash, I’ve been confined to the use of public transport for my commute, and honestly, I just don’t know how anyone does it. Let the photo be Exhibit A. Back in the early to mid 70s, there was already research going on into the effects of over-crowding on people’s stress-levels. The more we’re crammed in, in trains, or houses, or neighbourhoods, and the less control we have over being in a crowded situation, the higher our stress levels get, as measured in terms of adrenaline and catecholamine secretion. People who travel and work and live in what they perceive to be overcrowded environments just are going to have almost constantly elevated stress levels. The natural human craving for space is easily converted into defensiveness, aggression, and withdrawal into non-social behaviours. Being jolted around with your face millimetres from someone’s rough backpack, you can be forgiven for believing that if you were standing quietly in the park, or on a beach in Thailand, you’d be happier. Because you probably would be. Or at least, there would be a lot less environmental stress affecting your neurochemistry (all things being equal). But I wasn’t in a park. And whilst it’s probably true that my perimenopause is part of the picture, I was starting to experience something that felt disconcertingly like rage.
And here’s the rub.
I wanted to feel peace. I was feeling rage. How the @&%$#! do we get from rage to peace using self-help tools and without recourse to weapons?!
Should I try breathing in white coloured light? Find compassion in my heart for my fellow cattle-commuters? Should I try to remember all the things I’m grateful for? Perhaps I should just do my best with my usual morning prayer and meditation sequence – after all, “trying to meditate IS meditating”…
None of those options are wrong. I use all of those tools at different times. But hopefully you’ll know what I mean if I say that sometimes, the idea of trying some practices just, well, kind of makes you want to kill something a little bit more. And then if you’re not careful, you’re in a subtle, or not so, shame-spiral. “If I had spiritual discipline I’d do it anyway”. “I’m lazy”. “See, you can only do it when it’s easy.” (I’m not dissing discipline, but there’s an easy flip for some of us from knowing discipline is important into beating ourselves around the head with it.)
I ended up getting off the train for 10 minutes in the hope that the next one would be easier. It was worse. And really, I needed to get to work. Peace was going to have to stay out of reach. I was going to have to surrender. I think it was Pema Chodron who said that negativity isn’t the problem. It’s negative negativity. Meaning, getting negative about feeling negative. Fighting it. Wanting it to change. I mean, of course we want it to change. But that’s the paradox.
The quickest pathway to change is the pathway of acceptance.
So I started to straightforwardly breathe the rage in, rather than trying to fend it off. Naming to myself, affirming to myself, that yes, I was feeling really [EXPLETIVE] angry; trying to feel the detailed sensations in my body of feeling enraged, simply allowing myself to feel that way.
The wisdom of the mindfulness tradition is that rather than focusing our attention on, say, the candle flame, and hoping to escape the feelings disturbing our peace, those feelings become the candle flame, and we discover that our peace can include them.
The importance of this for so many of us (and particularly for ACOAs / codependents / those living with c-PTSD / those of us who are often anxiously-attached), and in particular when it comes to anger, is that the programming we are trying to undo is that it isn’t OK to feel angry. My good friend K and I hypothesised together several years ago that there is probably a very significant link between anxiety and anger. It’s a well-established understanding in the psychotherapeutic community that depression can often be “anger turned inwards”. I wonder whether anxiety is the psyche’s reaction to flickers of anger. If you’ve learned that your own anger is usually punished or shamed, or that other people’s anger is dangerous and out of control, then it’s rational that the beginnings of angry feelings might trigger anxiety. The association might have been so powerful that we aren’t even aware of the start of anger, only the reflexive anxiety.
I could talk and write about anger, and anxiety, for hours. I still have an under-developed relationship with the former and an over-developed relationship with the latter. For now, I want to come back around to that longing that most of us feel for peace, and that conviction that so many of us have that we’d find more peace if we lived in a more spacious and natural environment.
I believe we’re right.
But I don’t believe that we’re doomed to stress and an absence of peace until we can afford to permanently relocate, and we also don’t have to punish ourselves by insisting that we must always learn to find peace in difficult conditions. I know how easy it is to be absolutist, but I also know that even five minutes a day standing in my garden, or a park, makes a difference. That a quiet walk up a hill or through some trees once every couple of weeks is restorative. That it’s possible to make time a few times a year for a couple of days away somewhere out of town. And lastly – the imagination is a realm entirely within our reach at all times, and as brain-activity mapping experiments have recently shown, the brain does not easily distinguish between what is real and what is imagined. If all other options are currently out of reach, close your eyes and craft a natural landscape for yourself to imagine taking a lingering walk through, and breathe it in for two or three minutes.
Claire @ A Time To Heal
PS if you’d like to spend a couple of days away from town working with your anxiety creatively and in nature, my next workshop is on the weekend of the 29th and 30th April, 25 minutes south of London by train, in the beautiful Caterham Valley . You can find out more here.
Taking a brief stroll in the sun this afternoon, I walked past “Clarence Gate”. Meaning, I had never heard of “Clarence Gate”, and as I walked through it, enjoying the blossom on nearby trees, I almost entirely missed that I’d even walked through a gate. I’m not sure what caught my eye. Maybe the unassuming sign on the railings. But it stopped me in my tracks. It’s a dull, uncelebrated bit of history, serving no purpose. Presumably listed.
Like the visual artist Clare Lewis, I’ve always been fascinated by “liminality” – in-between times, places, spaces, states. Often so deeply uncomfortable for the human psyche, which in general prefers certainty, solid ground, a well-triangulated location. Learning to tolerate, lean into, even celebrate The Unknown, usually takes a lot of courage and training. Even though “the” reality (whatever that means) is that so much of our life is made up of the unknown, if we dare to admit it. Seeing and photographing Clarence Gate put me in mind of liminality again.
As I carried on my way, I started wondering how many long-forgotten gateways exist in me. How many times have I been on the threshold of something, in an in between place that seemed never-ending, longing for solution, resolution? The agony of an unsolved situation, unknown answers; that painful place – especially in therapy – between understanding a self-defeating way of being in the world, and being able to change it.
My supervisor recently reminded me that, when we’re stuck, or disheartened (she was recalling an often arduous trek along the Camino de Santiago), there is much to be gained from turning and looking back “whence we came”. Seeing the peaks, valleys and stony pathways already behind us, already mastered. How easy it is to forget, almost instantly, how much of a problem something was for us, once we’ve surmounted it. How many long-forgotten gateways exist in us, where we once stood agonising and full of despair? How heartening it could be, when we find ourselves yet again standing in a gateway, to remember that one day, the gateway will have disappeared from view, un-marked, un-remembered, despite its enormous significance to us in this moment.
No more than 100 yards further along the road, I came across this.
transition made beautiful
The connection between the two thresholds wasn’t lost on me. It suddenly struck me that, if I’m going to have to stay for a while in a transitioning space, if I’m going to have to confront it again and again, perhaps I can look for or create beauty there, look for the art of it, and not forget that the doorways themselves can be celebrated, not just the spaces they separate.
Because of course inevitably, humanly, naturally, reflexively – many of us will be experiencing fear. In our thoughts, our emotional reactions, our bodily sensations.
Some of us will also be experiencing great sadness. Or anger.
And it’s important to not mistake the #wearenotafraid message for the more pernicious, shaming and bullying “man up” attitude that is so detestable, out-dated and psychologically ill-informed.
At its most inspiring, #wearenotafraid, as I relate to it, means something like
“I might be afraid, and there’s nothing wrong with me for being afraid, and yet, I will find within me the courage to carry on with my life in spite of my fear, as an act of defiance and resistance.”
With a big nod to Susan Jeffers, we both allow ourselves to feel our fear, and to “do it” – live, love, gather, work, travel, laugh – anyway.
I personally often need to remind myself that one of the essential steps towards finding the courage to “do it anyway” is first feeling and owning all the feelings and physical sensations I have in response to something, and if they’re overwhelming, talking to someone else I trust about them. Without this step we’re dangerously close to the realms of dissociation, denial, and supression, which have no part in true courage.
In the immediate face of danger, of course, the amazing human psyche is capable of suppressing debilitating fear in order for us to save ourselves or others. I am constantly in awe of what people are capable of in the face of terror. And men and women who regularly face threat in the line of their duty know better than most of us that some form of after-the-fact, healthy, honest decompression, mixed, usually, with an impressive dose of black humour, is essential to getting up again the next day and doing it all over again.
What if the most important thing you could do today was show that sometimes it’s ok – it’s essential – to be doing nothing? Here are some thoughts from Quaker Faith and Practice. And you might also be interested in this poem about the sacred gift of doing nothing.
Living a full life
There is, it sometimes seems, an excess of religious and social busyness these days, a round of committees and conferences and journeyings, of which the cost in ‘peaceable wisdom’ is not sufficiently counted. Sometimes we appear overmuch to count as merit our participation in these things… At least we ought to make sure that we sacrifice our leisure for something worthy. True leisureliness is a beautiful thing and may not lightly be given away. Indeed, it is one of the outstanding and most wonderful features of the life of Christ that, with all his work in preaching and healing and planning for the Kingdom, he leaves behind this sense of leisure, of time in which to pray and meditate, to stand and stare at the cornfields and fishing boats, and to listen to the confidences of neighbours and passers-by…
Most of us need from time to time the experience of something spacious or space-making, when Time ceases to be the enemy, goad-in-hand, and becomes our friend. To read good literature, gaze on natural beauty, to follow cultivated pursuits until our spirits are refreshed and expanded, will not unfit us for the up and doing of life*, whether of personal or church affairs. Rather will it help us to separate the essential from the unessential, to know where we are really needed and get a sense of proportion. We shall find ourselves giving the effect of leisure even in the midst of a full and busy life. People do not pour their joys or sorrows into the ears of those with an eye on the clock*.