What a year it has been. A year of much water flowing, cascading, sometimes even bucketing down. Perhaps even a watershed year. Many tears shed, much pain experienced. Lots of laughter, joy, and love too. Many bridges built and crossed, some cracked, possible broken. A year of enormous change in every aspect of my life. A year of new paths forged, new challenges met, wonderful new friendships made and old ones grown. A showing up and integration perhaps of whom I know myself to be. So much to be grateful for.
Thank you, as always, to the readers who follow this blog. Continuing to show curiosity in what I might write about. Writing this blog has become a faithful companion, allowing some expression for my ongoing musings, and will continue in the new year as before. A challenge to mindfully muse from the heart, with vulnerability, about my work, about life, and more. There will be some additions. I have added a page for my posts that seem to be primarily poetic in nature. You will also see a new challenge page added that will see one post per month, posted usually on the 14th of the month, which will address, from my perspective, ten areas of engaging with vulnerability and cultivating wholeheartedness, as set out by Brené Brown in one of her books – authenticity; self-compassion; resilience; gratitude; intuition; creativity; play and rest; stillness; meaningful work; laughter, song and dance. This is the writing challenge I wish to set myself this coming new year. To show up, be present, and inquire deeply into vulnerability and what this may mean to living a wholehearted life. In so doing to fully step into everything I have set into motion this past year, with kindness and compassion for all.
You See I want a Lot
by Rainer Maria Rilke
You see, I want a lot.
Perhaps I want everything:
the darkness that comes with every infinite fall
and the shivering blaze of every step up.
So many live on and want nothing,
and are raised to the rank of prince
by the slippery ease of their light judgments.
But what you love to see are faces
that do work and feel thirst.
You love most of all those who need you
as they need a crowbar or a hoe.
You have not grown old, and it is not too late
to dive into your increasing depths
where life calmly gives out its own secret.
May you all experience much peace and ease and be greatly blessed with kindness, love, courage, and new adventures during 2014.
2014 The Engaging with a Wholeheart Project: January
Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
you don’t want to take.
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
way of starting
Start with your own
give up on other
don’t let them
your own voice,
Start right now
take a small step
you can call your own
heroics, be humble
start close in,
for your own.
Start close in,
the second step
or the third,
start with the first
you don’t want to take.
~David Whyte, River Flow: New and Selected Poems
So today I am starting close in. Just this first step. No more. Right here. Beginning this writing of vulnerability and all that it demands of us to show up and be present with kindness, gentleness, and tenderness. Recent years have been a meandering through the encountering of vulnerability and resilience, in myself and in my patients and their families, but in some ways not an engaging deeply with vulnerability from the perspective of understanding its full spectrum. That journey still daily unfolds. Perhaps for all of us.
About eighteen months ago I was having a Skype conversation with a dear friend of mine after her recent solo ten-day silent retreat. Curious about what had come up for her. Curious about what had been present during the ten days alone at the side of a mountain, someone silently delivering food each day. She told me she had sat many days with a new emotion that came up for her. The emotion and engagement with shame and her visceral experience of how hot and deeply present it felt. I remember very vividly my initial thought of “Huh, I don’t really do shame. Embarrassment and guilt maybe, but not really shame.” Some months later I was sent by email a TED talk given by Brené Brown on the Power of Vulnerability that has now gone viral with more than thirteen million views. Brené Brown spoke extensively about shame and how it relates to vulnerability. And for me it was like the floodgates opened up. I suddenly was in touch with all the areas of my life that had been touched by vulnerability and shame, and moments that I had perhaps missed when my patients shared their experiences of this. I was reminded of speaking with a young teenage patient, an orphan, a long way from home, staying with an aunt because she needed care given by one of only two renal dialysis units in the country. Now after her body had rejected a kidney transplant, she was on peritoneal dialysis, having to infuse into and then drain out exchange fluid from of her abdomen every four hours so that the toxins accumulating in her body, due to her non-functioning kidneys, could be cleared. Her renal team had asked me to spend time with her due to her depression, offer some space to express herself, and learn some mindful approaches to build resilience back into her life. Her questions were sad and filled with loss and rejection. Questions about feeling vulnerable and othered; questions about being shamed, and feeling shamed, questions of an extended family that had little tolerance for the difficulties of her illness process and rigid necessary practicalities of constant dialysis. And in that sitting with her I recognised how we all put up walls to protect our tender vulnerable beings. How we all other and shame, are othered and shamed. How we turn away from our vulnerabilities, hide our pain, or lash out. How we all struggle to show up in that moment of feeling vulnerable and exposed. And in that turning inward can be at great risk of depression and more.
Recently starting in on Brené Brown’s new book Daring Greatly: how the courage to be vulnerable transforms she mentions her previous guideposts for Wholehearted living which strongly resonated with my own journey, and that of the young people and families I serve. So the seeds for this writing project took form, 2014 The Engaging with a Wholeheart Project, based on the ten guideposts for wholehearted living: cultivating authenticity; self-compassion; resilient spirit; gratitude and joy; intuition and trusting faith; creativity; play and rest; calm and stillness; meaningful work; laughter, song, and dance. In this unfolding vulnerability project of cultivating a wholehearted life, for myself, those I love, and those I walk alongside, I will engage with each of these themes in the months to come. Perhaps you wish to engage with them too. One month at a time. A be sure to have look at the TED talks if you haven’t already seen them.
2014 The Engaging with a Wholeheart Project: February
cultivating authenticity, letting go of what will people thinkLove After Love The time will come When, with elation You will greet yourself arriving At your own door, in your own mirror, And each will smile at the other’s welcome And say, sit here. Eat. You will love again the stranger who was your self. Give wine, give bread, give back your heart To itself, to the stranger who has loved you All your life, whom you have ignored For another, who knows you by heart. Take down the love letters from the bookshelf The photographs, the desperate notes, Peel your own image from the mirror. Sit. Feast on your life. By Derek Walcott
Today February 14th is widely celebrated as Valentine’s Day. A day of the heart. A day for relationships. A day for declaring love, Commercially feted as the day to buy flowers, card, chocolates, dinner, and more. But for me the most important relationship we can cultivate is perhaps that to the self. The self we often forget, ignore, pretend was not quite the way it is, and show up as another. Derek Walcott has it completely accurate when he speaks about loving the stranger we have ignored for another. This stranger we have tried to mold into another, that we have not loved, and whom we have abandoned. So today on this day of love, remember this stranger. And peel that image off the mirror and feast on the one that has always been there. That patiently resides at the very heart of our being.
This month’s Wholeheart Project theme is cultivating authenticity, letting go of what will people think. “Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy – the experiences that makes us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will be discover the infinite power of our light.” Brené Brown.
These past few days I have spent time with one of my children struggling with exactly this. How to move forward with courage and conviction for this one life of ours and make choices that support our own needs, regardless of the fall out that it may have. To allow our own authenticity to show, and be vulnerable in the face of what people think, is indeed perhaps the most courageous act we can make.
So for now I have little more to share. Perhaps just some curiosity about how you see yourself showing up in your own lives? What do you see when you peel the image away from the mirror and feast in that which you already are. May you have courage and conviction this month to live your own life, to peel the image off the mirror and get to know the stranger you may have ignored. Have courage to be vulnerable in the face of living your own authentic life. There is no other.
2014 The Engaging with a Wholeheart Project: March
cultivating self-compassion – letting go of perfection
One of my personal themes often is that of trying to please many. To not easily sit with the discomfort that arises when myself and people around me are sad, mad, and generally unhappy. Trying to change how these moments unfold. A deeply rooted narrative that in time with deep listening, compassion and awareness allows me more to stay with discomfort that arises when I can’t please everyone, or even myself. Sometimes I forget though and try to do too many things at once, and like last night, while tired from traveling, scalded my hand with hot pasta water. All fine today but in the spirit of cultivating self-compassion and letting go of perfection, and declaring some time to pause and rest, this will be an imperfectly delivered post. A very short one. But I will share a poem.
May you next month be one of staying close to yourself. Leaning into the discomfort of not being perfect, and cultivating kindness and compassion for your being that strives to have each moment be different, or indeed – be perfect. May we all learn to live with a little less perfection and be more wholehearted.
Sweet Darkness by David WhyteWhen your eyes are tired the world it tired also. When your vision has gone no part of the world can find you. Time to go into the dark where the night has eyes to recognize its own. There you can be sure you are not beyond love. The dark will be your womb tonight. The night will give you a horizon further than you can see. You must learn one thing. The world was made to be free in. Give up all the other worlds except the one to which you belong. Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness to learn anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.
2014 The Engaging with a Wholeheart Project: April
Cultivating a Resilient Spirit – letting go of numbing and powerlessness
When considering what resilience means for me I often return to the subject of vulnerability and how being truly resilient and knowing the depth of one’s strength and personal capacity and power, one must also know the shadow sides, the depth of one’s vulnerabilities and be willing to show them and show up for them.Resilience is the capacity to be okay with whatever shows up, and whatever comes one’s way. For that to happen there needs be a sense of self that lends one the capacity to bend rather than break. Resilience confers that capacity to face all our challenging parts. Even the parts we have disowned, that cause us to doubt ourselves, that we may feel render us weak and unlovable, or unprofessional or whatever un-definition one would like to name. The parts, that if we choose to believe their stories, render us powerless to connect with the present that we are engaging with and then indeed have any impact on our future. That is the connection of powerlessness to resiliency. Only once we recognise that our vulnerability is our strength does the fear of weakness no longer scare and frighten us and we can begin to consider letting go of the fear of being afraid itself. In so doing we stop living within the vortex of powerlessness and turn toward embodying a more resilient spirit.As a small illustrative example, I recently got myself lost on purpose. A new experience for me. The GPS refusing to recognise the address I needed. I knew the suburb it was insisting on giving me was nearby so I decided to go there anyway and see, but of course the office block that it took me to was not the house I was looking for. In getting closer to my target, however, the GPS suddenly could recognise where I wanted to go. In the past I might have panicked or been completely frustrated by this, but I found myself willing to be lost, sort of.., willing to experience the emotion of not quite knowing if I was going in the right direction, and in so doing found myself closer to where I needed to be than I had imagined. Letting go of the fear of feeling fear, letting go of the fear of being out of control, I found myself able to be so much more creative.As this year of living wholehearted unfolds I find myself ever more willing to just show up as I am. To not constantly offer explanations for my life, for this journey that I find myself on. At times this can be discomforting, especially if those questioning are more used to neat answers. I find myself no longer unwilling to comply, to pretend life is anything but what it is, messy and complicated and beautiful and wondrous. I know I am blessed. I have chosen to step off the beaten path and am still supported in that. I have chosen a life of uncertainty for now and stopped the numbing, and have no real idea what the future holds. Rather than that have me feel fear and powerless I feel anything is possible.
Having not written this blog for a while, being busy with family, traveling and more, I find myself returning to my intention for this year: to write, speak and be from the heart; to deeply reside in that space that no longer is willing to give in to numbing and masking and hiding; to listen deeply within myself and not give in to easy answers but to stay, sit, wait, be, breath, and allow the world to find me. May you give in to that which is already present and be more wiling to bend with it. May your resilient spirit continue to grow through this engagement.
May you be blessed in the Holy Names of those who carry
our pain up the mountain of transfiguration.
May you know tender shelter and healing blessing when
you are called to stand in the place of pain.
May the places of darkness within you be turned towards the light.
May you be granted the wisdom to avoid false resistance
and when suffering knocks on the door of your life,
may you be able to glimpse its hidden gift.
May you be able to see the fruits of suffering.
May memory bless and shelter you with the hard-earned
light of past travail, may this give you confidence and trust.
May a window of light always surprise you.
May the grace of transfiguration heal your wounds.
May you know that even though the storm might rage yet
not a hair of your head will be harmed.
2014 The Engaging with a Wholeheart Project: May
Cultivating Gratitude and Joy – Letting go of Scarcity and Fear of the Dark
“Wanting a soul life without the dark, ………is like expecting an egg without the brooding heat of the mother hen.”
© David Whyte from The Heart aroused
My family knows I am the easiest person in the world to scare. Just say boo and I jump. Even if I know it’s coming, I still get a fright. Just the way my nervous system has been programmed over the years. Such fun for everyone to test on occasion, especially my children, almost like a party trick that they can roll out when they are bored, until they realise that I really do get a fright, and are moved at times by a sense of compassion for my disrupted nervous system. It is the unpredictable that has scared me, the jumping out from behind doors, the dark, the not knowing. Now, however, that seems to be slowly changing. Seems to be attaining a status of resolving residual nervous system operating system. To support my thought that this is just some residual habit of my nervous system I have been surprised lately to find that walking around my new city at night brings up none of these old fears. It seems the years of being fearful of walking through the dark and living in the valley of shadows may be over. It may be time to cultivate gratitude and joy. Time to let the light in.
Perhaps, before I continue, an apology. This post is late. More than two weeks late in fact. In starting with this project this year I had committed to posting on a Wholeheart topic every month around the 14th day of each month. Now it is the next month already. And other blog posts have also not been easily forthcoming. There has been difficulty in writing. An understatement. The committing to write from the heart has at times meant crossing into personal and intimate journeys that are not comfortable sharing spaces. Being vulnerable in full view is another step in the unfolding journey. But having committed this writing, this project from a perspective of wholeheartedness and vulnerability, to be less than that is not really possible with these offerings to contemplate. Why then this is late. And short. And still not so very personal.
My journey this past year has been one of opening to my deeper truth, the longing for the light, the light that has been patiently waiting. To the being honest with those around me, too allow in the rawness and the meeting of the pain, and the eventual capacity to let go, to loosen the clinging and allow an interior orientation that is more flexible, relaxed and at ease with how things are. With acceptance comes the paradox of joy, of gratitude, of connection, of being encountered with at the very real raw level of our intimate humanity. That is the longing we all have.
For longing – John O Donohue
Blessed be the longing that brought you here
And quickens your soul with wonder.
May you have the courage to listen to the voice of desire
That disturbs you when you have settled for something safe.
May you have the wisdom to enter generously into your own unease
To discover the new direction your longing wants you to take.
May the forms of your belonging–in love, creativity, and friendship–
Be equal to the grandeur and the call of your soul.
May the one you long for long for you.
May your dreams gradually reveal the destination of your desire.
May a secret Providence guide your thought and nurture your feeling.
May your mind inhabit your life with the sureness with which
your body inhabits the world.
May your heart never be haunted by ghost-structures of old damage.
May you come to accept your longing as divine urgency.
May you know the urgency with which God longs for you.
So as I write this month, so long overdue, while I fly over that majestic continent of Africa to bring this journey full circle, cultivating gratitude and joy even as I share some of this journey with you, I am very intimately aware of how much I have to be grateful for and how much joy there is in my life. And that it comes not from blithely or blindly stepping into an unknowable desire but into the unknown longing that draws all of us closer to the source of our own hearts and healing and strength. A turning toward the difficult, a looking deeply into the abyss, and knowing that I have finally found my way out, that no other is responsible for this journey, even as I am still deeply responsible and tied to the lives of those around me.
Though this may be sparse with the story and the detail, with that rational cognitive part with which you can make sense of these reflections, none of that is of any import. What is relevant is that in the turning toward a greatest fear, my fear of the dark, of being alone and abandoned, and in trusting this journey of longing for a deeper knowing and truth, a journey I have not always understood but that has drawn me ever onward, I have found than listening to that soft voice that is my own in amongst the many clamoring for airtime, is the only way to set the compass of my life, of my heart, of this journey I call my life. What is it that you listen for? That you trust even as you don’t fully understand? And in so doing cultivate a grateful and joyful heart that can lead you out of the darkness.
May you all be well, this day, a day to fill with gratitude and joy for all that is and may you come to understand and accept your longings as divine urgency.
Cultivating Intuition and Trusting Faith – letting go of the need for certainty
Thirty-seven years ago on the 7th day, of the 7th month, in the year 1977 my journey into greater uncertainty started. I still remember that day clearly. I was twelve years old. We were gathered at the local airport just up the hill from my small village in Germany, surrounded by family, about to embark on the long journey into the Far East. We had already been for many years the “Africans”, the part of the family that dared be different, that somehow felt comfort in traveling to strange and foreign lands to live, which for many at that time in our small family villages in Germany and France seemed unimaginable. That past summer I had spent with my cousin attending school, had many of her school friends ask if we lived in grass huts, rode elephants to school, and lions roamed freely in the streets. (Although not much may have changed… My own children tell me they have still had some of the same questions asked of them.) And so from having been “African” we were embarking on a journey to become “Korean”.
The long flight took us from Saarbrücken-Ensheim airport to Frankfurt to Fukuoka where we waited in a hotel for some days while visas and work permits were finalized. I remember lying awake one night with an aching arm, after having had the requisite Cholera vaccination, wondering about this strange journey we were on, feeling a mixture of anxiety, fear, loss, anticipation and excitement at what lay ahead. All made safer as I was with family, and my one brother who often helped me mediate the world in those early years. My young mind could not imagine what was coming our way. There were no television stories to tell us. The media and books I had found in Windhoek had been heavily anti anything from the so-called communist east. Searching the world map in our school geography book for Korea all I remember is it being a very small peninsula shown right next to the very large, completely coloured in communist red, country of China. All I had heard, from my young mind perspective, about this region was propaganda and fear. I had no idea how to think about this move other than it seemed a good move for my dad, exciting for our family, we were all going together, and the best was we could order from a company catalogue some special treats from Germany to supplement our local finds. The excitement when the packages arrived, and we could have some chocolate again, was like Christmas every time.
Arriving in Pusan, South Korea, it felt like I was rendered illiterate overnight. All the signs were in writing that I could not understand, and I had no idea what anyone was saying. Despite this everyone was friendly and curious. Perhaps from my perspective a little overly so. Everyone wanted to touch my hair and the concept of personal space seemed not to exist. We were touched, pulled along, embraced, especially us children. All with big smiles that we dare not deny. And after some time of living in the local neighborhood we were in we found ourselves getting used to the sounds and sights and smells and food, everything was different to anything I had ever experienced. There was no real preparation for this change, no thought to prepare for the adjusting, just an expectation that it could be done, that all would be fine. We were occupying the top floor of our landlord’s house, I was sharing a room and a bed with my younger sister, while my brothers got the big bedroom with beds and desks each, and my parents set up a bed in the lounge behind a screen. After a month of playing on the streets outside our glass encrusted walls, and playing ping pong with the boys downstairs whom we could not understand, we were enrolled in the only English school in town, on the US army base of Hialeah. Having left grade 7 in Windhoek after only two months of school, and being in Germany while my dad entrained into his new work, it was decided that we would be enrolled into the next grade. I started school again in grade 8 and never did do grade 7. Academically at the time it was not really a problem. The bigger issue for me was social. I was more than a year younger than most in my class. This may have not been necessarily important but as I found myself new to the school, to this third culture of Americanisms, and on the cusp of puberty, the division was between being able to go to the teen section of the after school teen club, as opposed to the pre-teen section. All the kids in my class could go to teen section. As a newbie I could only get into the pre-teen section. Don’t get me wrong I made some amazing friends who were in grade 7, and they were some of my closest friends in Pusan(now Busan) and we are still in touch, but it was not a good start for building confidence in my teenage self when I was having to learn to adapt to a completely new culture and then quickly adapt to a third system in going to an American Army Base school.
All the other kids seemed more confident and outgoing and even though I was pretty good at being that too, even if quietly so, it was at an internal cost that only showed up years later when things unraveled at university, and I could no longer bluff my way through, and the academics did not keep up. And as the years have gone on the need for certainty at times has grown. Has sprouted into a need for being organised, perfect, and always in the know. In time all that too has come apart and now it is time to let go of needing to know. Needing to be certain. Time to trust my own senses and intuition and listen to my deeper longings with faith that this is the simpler and truer way to show up for my life.
Yesterday another 7 day of importance passed. 7 + 7 = 14, 7 x 7 = 49, the end of my own 49th year, and the beginning of the mid-century. Can’t quite believe where the time has gone. It does however feel like all the turmoil of change and adaption, hiding and masks, restriction and growth, has come full circle, and that for the first time in a very long time I am residing in a place of my own choosing, one that I have actively sought out and despite all the difficulties have stayed the road and find in that less need for certainty, and even less need for complete clarity, less need to know what will be around the next corner. There is a capacity to trust and have faith that this will all be okay, now and in time. And what stays constant for me is the turning toward the uncertainty, turning toward the difficult, turning toward the faith that in this moment everything is truly okay and in that there is much to be grateful for.
In all of this I have finally come to have a deeper appreciation of one of my favorite Haiku’s by Basho
My house burnt down
Now I can see the other side
Cultivating Creativity: Letting go of Comparison
So here I am on a relaxing summer holiday in my birth country, Germany, but as I am committed to continuing my monthly posts for the Wholeheart Project, have this to share. It has been a year so far of discovering joy and meaning, of letting go and letting be, of allowing my own vulnerabilities to show more and learning to be okay with them, of engaging in various projects and themes, and uncovering creativity in all its varieties of form.
How wonderful too that this is the theme for the month: Cultivating creativity and letting go of comparison. Much has been happening for me on the cultivating creativity front. These past two months I have been working my way through Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way with a friend of mine in the US, discussing the weekly topics with each other and uncovering our own creative ways together, and for this month of July I have been engaged in a walking challenge set out by a South African friend of mine now living in Australia, who is into her twelve month of walking for 30 minutes a day and through this started a world wide support network of fellow walkers and discoverers. She also added her own brand of creativity to this challenge, instructions for this month to notice contrasts while out walking this month and to add in ten minutes at least of task completion. Let me know if you wish to join us.
In all of this creative flourishing I have noticed a few things help me with being creative and the letting go of comparison on this daily journey: intention, practice, patience, kindness, unconditional support, humour, starting over again every day, and connection. Not so different from the practice of mindfulness, from the principles that guide MBSR. Patience, Beginner’s Mind, Non-Judging, Trust, Non-Striving, Acceptance, Letting Go. The cultivating of creativity, just like that of mindfulness, asks of us to just practice, to let go of the need to be perfect and creative in any particular way, to have our being or creativity look like that of another. We often block our own being and creativity for fear of not being judged good enough, by our own fear of not being accepted for who we are and the fear of showing ourselves, of showing up just as we are. What I am learning on this journey of discovering my own creativity and rising to the challenge of doing something creative every day is that I love to play and laugh and have fun and be silly and that being serious and rational and comparing what and who I am to that of others in their lives and careers can be held, nourished, and nurtured with a lighter touch. For me being and cultivating creativity has been about cultivating the capacity to be vulnerable in my own joy and silliness of choices, and in that allow creativity and fun and laughter to permeate my being.
Frida Kahlo who was born and died in this creative month of July sixty years ago was one such creative, who refused to conform to anyone’s idea of what was normal and acceptable, was purported to have said this about feeling like an outsider “ I used to think I was the strangest person in the world, but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.”
You may not think of you are an “artist” or that you have talent or are creative. My own experience is that we are all creative and that we all have talent. We just need to allow our very own unique expression to be brought forth into this world. And more often than not we already know what that is but we are closed off from it by fear and judgement. Ultimately we long to show ourselves in our very own particular manner. Perhaps for this next month treat your creative self with gentleness and kindness and allow her to flourish and breathe and grow without constraint or judgement. You may be surprised at how much silly fun you can have that can be good for you and how your heart will grow and smile in recognition.
Cultivating Play and Rest – letting go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth.
For this past month of July I have gifted myself rest and play in a way that I have not felt or even noticed to be necessary before. I have had a slow, deep, growing sense that my body, mind, and soul have been longing for the letting go of needing to do anything, even meditate or read or write, letting go of needing to be any particular way. Having often felt somewhat “less than” in my productivity, having not brought in the “money,” this is a permission to reconnect to myself in a new way. A letting go of needing to produce anything. And in that I have been met with a mind chatter that has attempted to continue to drive an incessant need for doing and being and showing up in ways that are externally driven, strangling any young shoots of creative flourishing. Even as these voices are mine alone.
Discussing life’s goals and purposes with one of my children, we explored how the choices seem to be presented as succeeding either at “life”, the external orientation of success, or at “love”, the internal orientation of success, and that it can be challenging and difficult to reconcile the two. That many of us who are parents perhaps wish our children to experience the internal orientation of success and love what they do and who they are, but then become anxious when the external manifestations of success are not obvious. Even my own journey this past year has attracted some discomfort for daring to step off the external success orientation road, choosing instead to listen deeply to my own internal longing and not succumb to the panic that that orientation may not provide adequately. This fear contributes to external success becoming the focus, with exhaustion the necessary byproduct and consequent status symbol, and productivity the currency of self-worth. In this manner we continue on an ever increasing trajectory of busyness that may feed neither our longing for love nor satisfy our desire for success.
This past month of rest and letting go of the need to do anything at all other than be with my family and have a summer holiday in preparation for the year ahead has shown me how necessary play and rest are. How I have craved the permission to do nothing and be nobody in particular other than myself. It returns me daily to the simple practice of gratitude. It is the practice of not needing to have anything more for this moment to be perfect. It is knowing that this moment is all there really is.
So in the month ahead make some space to rest and to play, and examine the role of exhaustion and productivity as self-worth in your own lives. David Whyte describes being taught by a dear friend that the antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness. I am beginning to consider that the antidote to exhaustion may also be gratitude. As I find myself practicing gratitude in the tiniest slivers of time, the hidden moments of my life, I find my exhaustion lifting and lightening.
In ending I offer some simple musings from one of my journals earlier this year. Musings on the question: Why is it healing to ‘be’, to ‘rest here’? Perhaps it may evoke some musings for you?
Resting is breathing,
Stopping, being here.
Breathing is being alive in its most fundamental and natural rhythm.
Breathing washes through the whole body and via the Vagus nerve plugging into the diaphragm, lungs, heart, nervous system, brain. Slowing everything down.
Breathing brings oxygen into every smallest imagined and unimagined part of the body.
Resting in breathing
Breathing is being
Being is acknowledging life at its most mystical
Cultivating Calm and Stillness – Letting go of anxiety as a lifestyle
In 1962 my mother embarked on a one thousand kilometer journey on her own in a little VW beetle with a ten month old child through the heart of East Africa around Lake Victoria. Her husband, my father, had been sent to the mission station in Fort Portal, Uganda, in the shadow of the Ruwenzori Mountains to see if this would aid his recover, and she wanted to join him. The Ruwenzori are a glacial mountain range that connect Lake Albert with Lake Edward, of which the highest peak, Mount Stanley, now called Mount Ngaliema, rises more than 5000 meters above the plains before dropping off on the western side into the Greater Rift Valley. At the time they lived in Mwanza, Tanganyika (yet to become independent Tanzania) on the southern shores of Lake Victoria, while my father, an engineer, worked as part of the mission civil outreach programs developing and building roads, schools, and even buildings for the first university in Mwanza. Unfortunately he contracted bilharzia from swimming in the lake and became very ill which prompted the local parish community to recommend his retreat to the mountain air in the hope that this would aid his body recover from an illness for which no cure was yet available. A very simple cure was later developed by the US Military during the Vietnam war when many of it’s own troops were infected with Bilharzia while fighting in the watery trenches of that brutal conflict.
Initially when traveling to Fort Portal my dad left my mother and oldest brother, still a baby at the time, behind. Probably due to the fact that travel was expected to be long and arduous, along poorly developed roads, and he wanted to first assess how everything went. But after a few weeks, as the child grew, my mother packed the two of them up, loaded the VW beetle and set off on her journey north. These were not the days of disposable diapers, ready powdered milk, easy access to petrol or the consumables we now take for granted while traveling on the road. From Mwanza they would have to travel close to 1000 km around the lake, on yet to be tarred roads, along the developing landscape of the lake coastline, through the Serengeti plains where animals roamed freely, to a town on the western edge of the lake in Uganda. There they boarded a ferry with the car that took them the next distance across the northern reaches of the lake to Entebbe, and from there my mother drove the remaining distance west toward the Mountains of the Moon, as some call the Ruwenzori Mountain range.
On arrival my mother’s status became well known as the young French mother who traveled alone the full length of the lake with a young child in tow. She was guest of honor at the dinner table at the mission, seated next to the bishop, then still relatively new to Uganda, so that she could regale him with her stories. In company my mother was a vivacious woman who smiled and laughed a lot, told stories, and loved to be part of the group. A remarkable journey and story it was. What makes this story remarkable, however, is not that my mother made this journey alone through the Serengeti grasslands and across the largest lake in Africa, during the early years of the 1960’s, alone with a ten month old child; what makes this journey remarkable is that we imagine this woman to be strong willed, determined, perhaps a little naïve, but courageous to the core, and she certainly was all of these things and more; but what makes this journey truly remarkable, however, is that my mother embarked on this journey despite her constant encounter with significant levels of anxiety, at times to the point of panic. And in the story of this journey is cradled the realisation that one does not automatically cancel out the other. That they can co-exist as a non-dual dynamic in a way that allows the emergence of engaging with a life that builds greater resilience in the encountering and continuing to show up every day.
Only in the last few years have I begun to appreciate the significance of this story and have engaged with it at a deeper level within myself. As a child my default mantra, perhaps like many children, was that I did not want to grow up to be like my mother. The mother of my early childhood was governed by anxiety and fear, by boundaries and rules, by restricting my nascent stepping unfettered into a girl-power world through a lens of worry filtering “what will people thing?”. She was often in tears and at a loss at how to control my exuberant brothers and my own tentative disregard at times for the “what will people think?”. I grew up aloof from her suffering and thus from my own, unable to drill deeply into the turmoil of my own vulnerable unknowing. But as the peeling back process of these recent years has sunk itself ever deeper into the longing of my soul I have found myself almost drowning within a tsunami of anxiety, feeling anxious sensations arising at every turn of this unfolding blossoming life. To say I have been caught unawares and surprised might be an understatement. I have always expected and experienced myself to be calm and collected. Perhaps my family may attest otherwise. Anger – yes. Irritation – yes. Turmoil and discord- yes. But anxiety? That was reserved for my mother. And in the stepping into the meeting of this anxiety I have had to find a way to befriend the rising tides, to turn toward that which I never wanted but now know has always been here. Waiting for me to finally show up. And in the process I have paradoxically grown closer to my own mother, even though she passed away more than three years ago. I have been able to answer her plea for a greater intimate connection between us by learning to love my own shadows and the parts that she held unknowingly for me. There are still many long dusty roads to travel but I may be reaching the shoreline and the awaiting boat, and the distant promise of a place at the dinner table draws me ever on.
Perhaps returning metaphorically to the stillness and calm of the mission station at the base of Mountains of the Moon may finally allow me and the memory of my mother to let go of anxiety as a lifestyle, as a boundaried way of living, and allow the gentle falling into the heart’s longing for being home.
May you listen to your longing to be free.
May the frames of your belonging be generous enough for your dreams.
May you arise each day with a voice of blessing whispering in your heart.
May you find a harmony between your soul and your life.
May the sanctuary of your soul never become haunted.
May you know the eternal longing that lives at the heart of time
May there be kindness in your gaze when you look within.
May you never place walls between the light and yourself.
May you allow the wild beauty of the invisible world to gather you, mind you and embrace you in belonging.
From Benedictus, A Book of Blessings, by John O’Dohonhue
Cultivating Meaningful Work: Letting go of Self-Doubt and “Supposed To”.
So you may not have noticed, but this past month of October went past without my Engaging the Whole Heart Project post materialising. For some reason it has been difficult writing post, even though I am fully submersed at the moment in cultivating meaningful work, continuing my mindfulness in palliative care work, and working toward a Masters in Medical Humanities. Lots of cultivating going on and pursuing of my passions fully. Letting go of the self doubt and the supposed to’s, listening deeply to my inner voice.
So to honour the October post I am circulating an article that was published to day on ehospice.com on a meeting I attended this past week in parliament to give a very brief submission on mindfulness in palliative medicine.
Hopefully the next post for November will follow shortly. The last of the ten points from Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly.
Members of Parliament from all three main UK political parties have initiated and co-chaired an All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Mindfulness to investigate mindfulness-based interventions in all aspects of UK society.
Palliative Medicine and the Physical Health and NHS Staff Roundtable
At the APPG, the founder of Breathworks gave a presentation which was followed by an overview given of the evidence base by the Oxford Mindfulness Centre. The group discussed mindfulness and practical implementations within health settings, including chronic pain, palliative care, oncology and paediatric services.
NHS Staff reported on their experience of mindfulness training courses within two NHS Trusts, The King’s Fund, and the Bristol and Exeter University Mindfulness Network.
As the palliative care representative invited to present my personal experience of mindfulness within palliative care, perhaps a brief summary may capture some thoughts on why mindfulness might be an essential skill for all involved in the arena of caring for persons with life limiting and life threatening illness, and end of life care.
I have worked in palliative medicine in Johannesburg, South Africa, first in adult palliative care and these past years, before moving to London, in paediatric palliative care. I have had ample opportunity to incorporate my mindfulness training, which has developed at the same time, into my work.
This happened for no other reason than that my patients, to whom I was teaching some simple breath awareness mindfulness tools I had been exposed to on a short course, urged me to learn more.
Mindfulness interested me from a clinical perspective, wondering what it had to offer my practice of medicine as a clinician, to my patients in alleviating their suffering, and to healthcare workers, especially my co-workers in palliative care, to deal with their own levels of stress, burnout and compassion fatigue.
This symbiotic journey I have embarked on, of mindfulness and palliative care, these past thirteen years, has convinced me that mindfulness practice supports the experience of delivering palliative care in very practical ways.
This is especially so at a time of facing significant loss, death and dying – times perhaps of greatest distress for patients, families, and the professionals involved.
Mindfulness training offers palliative care workers a strengthening of the capacity of stable presence in the face of great suffering, deeply patient and self aware listening skills, open curiosity with less tendency to seek the least complex answers, unconditional regard, kindness and compassion for patients, families, and fellow clinicians.
It also fosters the capacity to allow curiosity, complexity and ambivalence to exist at times when answers are being sought, while being open and unattached to any pre-determined outcome. This ability to hold conflicting tensions of denial, anger, hope and hopelessness is crucial to compassionate care.
My journey has been informed by a small pilot research project I did with terminally ill cancer patients who reported increased quality of life scores, improved role function, and social and physical functioning through being part of an eight week mindfulness based stress reduction programme.
Since then, I have been offering the programme for palliative care teams and encouraging staff in engaging with a self care program which recognises that developing the capacity of self care with awareness, compassion, and greater presence can offer our patients a growing capacity that is less prone to turn away from their distress and difficulties due to our own unrecognised distress patterns.
Children respond readily to this approach and in my anecdotal experience, they show less anxiety, increased desire to engage with the experience they are facing, greater capacity to engage with ambivalence and denial that may be present, and even teach their own families the breath exercises and brief body scan practices they have learned.
The APPG on Mindfulness will wrap up its inquiry next month and all presentations, findings, and recommendations will be collated into a report: ‘The Mindful Nation’, due out in March 2015.
You can find further information on the Mindfulness Initiative website.
Cultivating Laughter, Song, and Dance: Letting go of ‘being cool’ and ‘always in control’.
Eleven months ago I launched into this Wholeheart writing project having been deeply touched by watching the TED talks on vulnerability given by Brené Brown. Her talks spoke to my very real experience of doing life this past year that has been very human and messy, intimate and personal. So now I find myself already at month eleven of this messy and wonderful year and the last of the posts based on her book Daring Greatly – cultivating laughter, song and dance.
This year has evolved into one of turning toward the vulnerable and difficult and touching deeply the being not cool and listening to the longing of my heart. Letting go of being cool and always in control has been the journey of the year, but also brought some of the funniest moments. Some of my funnest memories this past year have been about letting go of control with my children, family, friends and loved one. Being absolutely mad and crazy and loopy and rolling around with silly laughter, or doing crazy dance routines at home. And during one evening earlier in the year the precious experience of letting go into an evening class of five rhythms dancing in New York City and a surrender into vulnerability of being without the judging of the external being.
Letting go into laughter and dance requires a certain letting go of how one looks, of ignoring the judging from the outside, and allowing the inside knowing to guide one’s actions. Because when one is dancing and laughing and singing just for the joy of it there is a certain element of being out of control, of surrendering into the feeling of it all. And at times that definitely does not look cool.
One of my favorite poems is one that many of us may relate to as we move toward the letting go of worry of how we look, how cool we are, and how impressive we may look. We concern ourselves more with relationships and connecting, and being there for the small moments of our lives with what we care about and who we care about.
May this end of year season of being grateful, thankful, and cultivating joy, be filled with the capacity to laugh, sing, and dance, and letting go of the worry of how that may look.
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.
But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.
But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.
[by Jenny Joseph]
The longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere has come and gone and even though winter still deepens into the end of the year, the light is slowly creeping in. For this wholeheart writing project- engaging life with a wholeheart and exploring vulnerability – the year is also coming to a close even as it will start anew again. This has been a year of encountering vulnerability deeply, feeling adrift so many times and turning toward my own sense of it and what vulnerability feels and looks like. Looking back over the year of posts and the recognition of how we all hide behind barriers to protect our vulnerable soft beings and in that process subvert our inner voice, this has indeed be a year of journeying into the discovery of my own voice and expressing that more openly and with comfort, even if at times tainted with some hubris.
David Whyte in his new book Consolations writes an essay about vulnerability
“Vulnerability is not a weakness, a passing indisposition, or something we can arrange to do without, vulnerability is not a choice, vulnerability is the underlying, every present and abiding undercurrent of our natural state. To run from vulnerability is to run from the essence of our nature, the attempt to be invulnerable is the vain attempt to become something we are not and most especially, to close off our understanding of the grief of others. More seriously, in refusing our vulnerability we refuse the help needed at every turn of our existence and immobilize the essential, tidal and conversational foundations of our identity.”
“The only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance, our choice is to inhabit vulnerability as generous citizens of loss, robustly and fully, or conversely, as misers and complainers, reluctant and fearful, always at the gates of existence, but never bravely and completely attempting to enter, never wanting to risk ourselves, never walking fully through the door.”
So having come to the end of this open exploration on vulnerability I have delved deeply this year into cultivating authenticity; self-compassion; resilient spirit; gratitude and joy; intuition and trusting faith; creativity; play and rest; calm and stillness; meaningful work; laughter, song, and dance, letting go of having to present myself in a particular way and in so doing showing up just as I am. Perhaps the journey is only beginning.
This holiday season time of the year is not always an easy ask as many of us struggle with being alone, having family configurations change anew for the holidays, not having our holiday celebrations look like they did before, and feeling vulnerable in the process. Vulnerability asks of us to just be, as best we can, with courage and compassion and draw this vulnerability closer in with wholehearted engagement, understanding that as we befriend our vulnerability we befriend the core of our belonging.
Thank you for reading these wholehearted 2014 posts. Let’s see what 2015 brings.