Older, but no wiser
Andy Borrows' musings on life and all its confusion, contradictions, richness and opportunities
Saturday, February 28, 2004
Here I sit; the first stage of a journey over, waiting for a train to take me on the next stage. Just a short trip across country, but a pleasant change from the usual routine, and having made a rather half-hearted and unsuccessful attempt to catch a train that left really far too early in the morning, I now have time whilst I wait for the next one to watch the world go by, and all too rare time to think.
A cleaner shuffles past, lethargically pushing a broom moving the litter along. People pass by - a purposeful stride that says I know where I'm going; multiple suitcases telling that this is just one leg of lengthier trip; hugs of greeting as journeys intersect and combine. A few moments later the cleaner passes again, on the same route, with the same broom, probably pushing the same litter. Stuck in perpetual loop of time, going nowhere.
And maybe I'm sitting at a point of interchange of another journey too. Already set out from the relative comfort and familiarity of home and travelled the first stage, this is a time and place of reflection, of choice, of planning. So many place names beckon; but can I afford a ticket? Previous travels have largely been a matter of jumping on the first train that came by; travelling with purpose requires more preparation. So is this just one of many day trips, always returning home again at night? Or a vacation - a temporary break from routine? Or should I be planning an expedition - or maybe even emigration?
The journey metaphors are endless; I could go on for pages. Whichever I choose, I don't want to sit here too long or I'll get stuck in an endless loop like that cleaner...
Thursday, February 26, 2004
Logic tells me today is beautiful. Clear blue sky, bright winter sun throwing long sharp shadows, crisp still air – I see all this, but I don’t experience it. Even the cold (minus two Centigrade) is something distant – the surface of my skin is a long way away from me. Not that I’m feeling gloomy – just wondering why it is that I see all these things that I know would usually create a felt response in me; yet all I feel is the memory of past responses.
It’s that desire to be engaged with experience that was behind yesterday’s wish to be up a mountain somewhere. Mountains bring a vibrancy, a totality to experiencing, immersing you in it [aside: I wonder if there’s a link there to Denny’s comment yesterday…] in a way that’s impossible to ignore, involving all the senses at once.
Visually, the views are obvious of course, but there’s all the detail too – little rock plants, grasses bending and waving in the wind, imprints in the soil of feet that have gone before, shape and colour and texture of rock under my hand as I pull up over an obstacle, blankets of mist blowing across the mountaintops, revealing tantalising glimpses of further summits and then hiding them again.
Sounds of wind whipping shell clothing, or rain beating on the fabric of a hood pressed against an ear; or the roar of a waterfall, or the incessant friendly chatter of a stream flowing down a staircase of rocks; smells of fresh clean air – yes, what is it about mountain air that smells so good?
And most of all the sheer physicality of it all – the joyous feel of joints and muscles doing what it seems they were always designed for; thighs and calves propelling forwards and upwards; ankles holding balance finding uneven footholds in rocky descents; shoulders and back bearing the load of essentials necessary for survival in wild places. Buffeted by the wind; hammered by the rain; fried by the sun; hidden by the mist – you cannot be distant from experience when in mountains.
Even when surrounded by mountain landscapes, there’s a world of difference between merely being amongst mountains and giving yourself to their presence. From the valleys, the mountains look smaller, contained and controlled by the fences and tarmac roads that surround them. You can wander around their edges in safety, as you might wander around a caged bear in a zoo. But venture far into them and their size and power and remoteness take hold; even when the tarmac roads may still be in sight, they are far below, they occupy a different world, a world of order and control where humankind is in charge; up here no person lives, although some may visit for a while.
It wouldn’t be easy to find words for the freedom and joy that being in mountains brings, even when actually there, within the full experience. Sitting in London, it seems next to impossible. But I’ll try. Although at times it can verge on the mystical, those are very special, unique occasions - what I’m talking about here isn’t the full-on “mountaintop experience”, although that does happen; this is something more subdued, more subtle. A feeling of wholeness, of rightness, loving the very stones under my feet. Height does have something to do with it; being separated from the mundane world left far below, by a barrier that is not easy to cross in either direction, so whilst on mountains there is little chance of turning a corner and coming face-to-face with “civilisation” (may the Cairngorms funicular be torn from the land and dashed to pieces and it’s owners rot in hell…) It’s a different plane of existence – moving higher I leave the physical reminders of daily life behind; break too, for a while, some of the emotional strings that tie me to this flat world below, and on occasion feel a connection with something altogether higher and more universal.
I think I need a fix…
And I think one day I might make a longer essay of this…
Yet in amongst all that feeling of swirling motion there's a half-formed thought circling around that’s finding partial expression in metaphors of fixity, solidity, permanence.
It goes like this. However varied, full and changing their lives may appear, most people have an anchor of some sort; a fixed point of certainty. Though all else may be in doubt, so long as this one thing can be trusted to hold true, hope remains; there will always be a place of safety and refuge. A wall against which you can lean your back for support when your strength feels insufficient; a well from which to draw refreshment, where renewal can be found; an anchor that holds you firm when winds and storms would drive you from your intended course; a sure rock on which the superstructure of your life is built. (Enough metaphors for you?)
These havens of certainty can take a number of forms – for example, a supportive relationship, religious or spiritual beliefs, or a particularly strong self-belief (this last being the norm, I believe, amongst entrepreneurs. And Tony Blair).
Self belief may make you a survivor, but whether that's good for the survival of the rest of us is another matter. Self belief alone has no system of checks, no feedback. Whatever you do is by definition right and good. But from a selfish perspective, at least you have no worries. We have all those for you…
Religious and spiritual beliefs are safer in that respect; they do at least provide the potential for some reference system outside the self. But by their nature they require faith, which so often deserts us (or we, it) when we need it most.
Other things too can be an anchor of course, like place. Home, surrounded by friendly sights, sounds, smells. Familiar haunts, places to renew the spirit and inspire the soul. Or if not specific place, then type of place. Mountains and hills are places I return to in order to reconnect with self.
Identity, who we think we are - perhaps related to a job role - also can provide an element of constancy, but it can be fragile, wiped out by corporate reshuffles or changing markets. Brittle too; this model, once created, doesn't flex easily and resists change. (At least another six paragraphs needed to address this one properly...)
But when the context of life is change, perhaps best anchor of all is a supportive relationship. One that moves and changes with you yet is still rock-solid. It could be with a partner but doesn't have to be. Someone who can be mentor, cheer-leader, coach, shoulder to cry on, who will hold your hand when you’re lost and kick your backside when you’re lazy – but above all, someone who cares deeply, who will stand by you, regardless, purely for the sake of who you are.
Don’t take this as true, by the way; like I said, this is a half-formed thought. A hypothesis. Maybe plenty of people get on fine without anchors. But times of change in particular seem to need at least some element of stability; a balance bar to hold on to and carry with us as we step out onto that tightrope. And of all the metaphors here, that's the one I like best; the tightrope walker's bar that steadies him, aids his balance, yet he still has complete freedom.
Have you got an anchor? Or a balance bar?
Wednesday, February 25, 2004
Sunday, February 22, 2004
You're Watership Down!
by Richard Adams
Though many think of you as a bit young, even childish, you're
actually incredibly deep and complex. You show people the need to rethink their
assumptions, and confront them on everything from how they think to where they
build their houses. You might be one of the greatest people of all time. You'd
be recognized as such if you weren't always talking about talking rabbits.
Take the Book Quiz
at the Blue Pyramid.
Well, I DO rabbit on a bit sometimes....
Saturday, February 21, 2004
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
The most subtle, most dangerous form of dishonesty is perhaps to be dishonest with oneself; to deny self in order to fit with the expectations of others or with one’s own self-image. To suppress feelings because of their effect on others; or their effect on the status quo; or because of judgements as to whether such feelings are appropriate, or right, or beneficial. And to suppress them to the extent that they cease consciously to be felt. In the end, such dishonesty defeats its own purpose; how can the hollow shell, that is all that remains when the feelings have been denied, serve those others for whom it was created, if it is in effect no longer alive?
Suppressing feelings doesn’t eliminate them; they may not reach consciousness, but they exist within the self all the same. All kinds – hope, fear, anger, love, resentment, jealousy – all exist, all valid human responses to the glorious, confusing, frustrating, inspiring, depressing, uplifting, topsy-turvy human world we inhabit.
And paradoxical though it sounds, it is possible to have these responses, and at the same time not to have them. For one’s core being to respond, but one’s own consciousness to reject the response, to ignore it, pretend it isn’t there, because it doesn’t fit with my idea of who I am, or it would rock the boat, or it would upset someone, or it wouldn’t be appropriate, or it wouldn’t be right.
Yet the human soul, or psyche, or whatever word you want to use that encompasses mind and heart and spirit, has unfathomable wisdom. It speaks to us often, sometimes so quietly we must be still and calm to hear its whisperings; sometimes in gut-wrenching visceral responses that threaten to overwhelm us; sometimes in hidden messages we must be attuned to recognise. Yet equally often we choose to ignore this wisdom, believing it to be founded on shifting sands and preferring instead the solid foundation of rationality and fixed beliefs. And in a sense, the wisdom of the soul indeed has no firm foundation; it is not static, it responds to the flowing truth of the moment, not to some rigid artificial model of structures, rules, if-then clauses, held fixed for all time.
The words up until this point were written yesterday morning; my learning from the previous day’s counselling session. I had found a space where this honesty, denied for so long, could exist, and it seemed that I was learning to listen to this inner wisdom; the more I listened, the wiser it seemed and the easier it was to discern the voice above the distractions of the day.
But then something totally unexpected happened, which seemed to throw the words back in my face, taunting me to live them or abandon them. And my involuntary reaction was to slam shut the door so recently opened; to stop listening to my own inner wisdom, to the voice of my own soul. And with the door shut, even though I listened for that voice, I couldn’t hear it. I’d lost that connection.
For the moment. But what had allowed it to be in the first place, was the uniquely accepting and judgement-free relationship with the counsellor. Free to think anything, say anything, feel anything, be anything. An environment where words can be given to unspoken thoughts, unexpressed feelings can be felt perhaps for the first time. A place where the shutters over that inner wisdom are gently drawn back, allowing it to be heard.
And in a very few, very unique relationships outside of counselling, it is possible to have that same level of freedom and acceptance. I’m fortunate enough to have such a unique friendship. And the connection has been remade.
Thursday, February 19, 2004
“It sounds to me like you could be in that space of creative chaos, like when you have an idea for a poem or a writing piece but all the pieces are still floating in the mind and aren’t yet ready to take shape. Keep playing with the constants, those things you wrote about as giving you satisfaction and you know you want to have in your life. It’ll come together - maybe not all at once, but the next step is bound to become clear to you.”
I’ve had this feeling of thoughts and emotions all tumbling around together, having different perspectives on them on different days, unable to see any clear picture emerging from the chaos. Leslee’s comment, even though meant for someone else, brings two deeply significant things out of that chaos:
Keep playing with the constants... those things that give satisfaction…
Even the longest, most arduous journey is made up of single steps.
Monday, February 16, 2004
Toward Trust of Self
“Watching my clients, I have come to a much better understanding of creative people. El Greco, for example, must have realised as he looked at some of his early work, that “good artists do not paint like that.” But somehow he trusted his own experiencing of life, the process of himself, sufficiently that he could go on expressing his own unique perceptions. It was as though he could say, “Good artists do not paint like this, but I paint like this.” Or to move to another field, Ernest Hemingway was surely aware that “good writers do not write like this.” But fortunately he move toward being Hemingway, being himself, rather than toward some one else’s conception of a good writer. Einstein seems to have been unusually oblivious to the fact that good physicists did not think his kind of thoughts. Rather than drawing back because of his inadequate academic preparation in physics, he simply moved toward being Einstein, toward thinking his own thoughts, toward being as truly and deeply himself as he could. This is not a phenomenon which occurs only in the artist or the genius. Time and again in my clients, I have seen simple people become significant and creative in their own spheres, as they have developed more trust of the processes going on within themselves, and have dared to feel their own feelings, live by values which they discover within, and express themselves in their own unique ways.”
Carl Rogers, in an essay from “On becoming a person”, titled “To Be That Self Which One Truly Is”
Sunday, February 15, 2004
England is hardly known for its rockiness. Gentle rolling hills, rural landscapes of farms, fields and hedgerows are more representative of the characteristics that we associate with Englishness. True, the borders of land and sea sometimes expose the underlying skeleton in cliffs and rocky shorelines, but for the most part that skeleton remains well hidden; England does not have the body of a lean athlete, rather that of a well-fed, even corpulent, country gentleman.
But if you know where to look, the evidence of that skeleton is there. Rock climbers have been searching out these places for decades; there’s hardly a crag or outcrop in the country that hasn’t been discovered, explored, tested, documented and revisited countless times. To the casual passer by, the significance of these places may be hardly noticed –at times picturesque, brooding, decaying; yet to the climber places of challenge, adrenalin, focus, self-discovery; places to come home to, revisiting old friends. For the climber gets to know these rocks intimately; all their forms, features, colours, textures and hidden places.
Each of these crags has a unique character; they all have a powerful draw for climbers, but in different ways. The sleeping giants of rounded sandstone laying peacefully in the Kent woods at Harrison’s Rocks; the gritstone adventure playground of Stanage Edge, a riot of tumbling blocks, buttresses, bays and chimneys, running for miles at the edge of Peak district moorland; the gentler angled nursery of Birchen Edge, rocks worn smooth and ground beneath them now heavily eroded by the feet of so many fledgling climbers; and tucked away next door, the greener rocks of Chatsworth Edge – green from lichen, green from the trees that overhang, green from the grass at the rocks’ foot, grass that remains largely untrampled. This last is a beautiful place to be at the end of an Autumn afternoon – an idyll of copper leaves, green-gold rocks and burnished skies.
The mood of these places changes dramatically with the weather and the seasons. The ominous beetling grey walls and overhangs of The Roaches in Staffordshire can be intimidating and forbidding under leaden skies; yet on a spring morning the feel turns to one of rugged charm. Birchen Edge, usually friendly and welcoming in all weathers, gains an air of mystery and loneliness when approached through Autumn mists. Perhaps that is why the three huge boulders at the edge of the moor above the crag were named after Nelson’s ships at Trafalgar, appearing as they supposedly do as three great ships under sail emerging from the mist. Lawrencefield has perhaps the most consistent feel of any crag, possibly deriving from its man-made origins as a gritstone quarry - a few abandoned mill stones can still be seen scattered around, providing a useful spot to sit and don rock shoes. Surrounded by rock on three sides, the entire south-facing quarry glows golden pink on sunny days, a colour still present in the sand at the foot of the rocks even on the gloomiest of winter mornings.
Close to, the features and textures of the rock become all important. Different rock types possess profoundly different characteristics which in turn demand quite different styles of climbing.
Sandstone can be a nightmare for the uninitiated. The soft rock cannot sustain hard edges – all features are smooth, rounded; irregularities that might provide purchase for frantically scrabbling hands and feet have been eroded to the merest undulations in the surface by the action of countless hands and feet – being the nearest rocks to London, these are over-used to the point of requiring strict etiquette to avoid destroying their recreational capacity completely. “Holds” on sandstone have a frustrating tendency to slope down and out; cracks are shallow and offer little purchase; years of being been gripped by sweaty hands have impregnated some holds with sweat leaving a permanently slimy feel; other patches carry a ball-bearing layer of sand grains causing feet and fingers to skate unwillingly over the surface.
Sandstone, not surprisingly, is not well favoured by UK climbers. Its only merit is its accessibility for those living in the South East. But move further north and an ongoing debate emerges between the aficionados of the two most common rock types in the climbing areas in the central core of the country. Limestone calls for delicacy of touch; gritstone – God’s Own Rock – yields to a more gymnastic approach, earning its followers the nickname of “Gritstone Monkey” . For all its apparent smoothness, limestone, especially when weather-washed and free from vegetation, has the texture of very fine sandpaper, giving surprising grip even on smooth surfaces – in the dry. In the wet though, it turns treacherously greasy and unclimbable – best not to get caught in a storm when on limestone. Gritstone on the other hand is courser, rougher, can and will give you bloody knuckles and even a rash-like effect on the fingertips at the end of the day, caused by pressure on the skin of tiny pin-sharp grains of quartz. Yet the rough surface texture acts like the tread on a tyre, providing grip from those same points of quartz grains even when a veritable waterfall is running over the slabs. Limestone tends to have small, sharp, hard edges, demanding precision, balance and trust in the strength of the fingertips. Gritstone weathers to more rounded shapes; holds tend to be larger – the best known as jugs (short for jug-handles) for obvious reasons, especially those pulse-relieving “thanks God” holds.
So it is that, known so well, so intimately, the rock becomes a friend, sharing some of the most intense moments of relationship. Unyielding, it can stand aloof; repelling all onslaughts it can be a tormentor; calling forth focus and self belief it becomes a coach; allowing freedom for expression and deep self-examination it is a counsellor; sharing the joy – and sometimes the pain –of being alive it is a friend.
Lifeless it is not.
Saturday, February 14, 2004
If you're going to go pulling logs out of the dam, you have to be prepared to deal with the consequences.
I don't yet know that I am. Or that I'm not.
Thursday, February 12, 2004
I heard again yesterday a piece of music I hadn’t heard for quite a while – Sir Michael Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra. In most concertos, it is a solo instrument that is set against a full orchestra, in what may be at various times a battle of wits, a power struggle, a debate, a dialogue, a duet. This concerto follows the same principle, except that rather than there being a soloist, here it is two string orchestras that face each other on equal terms.
Ever since I first heard this piece, I’ve visualised it in terms of a dance; a ballet with just two performers, male and female. Which is a little odd, as I’ve never been to a ballet, and I don’t dance, can’t dance and never have danced – ever. But it is perhaps the most sensuously beautiful piece of music I know.
Hearing it again yesterday, the pictures of the dancers seemed even clearer in my mind, so, as much as an exercise as for any other reason, I thought I’d try and capture that never-seen choreography in words. Unsurprisingly, the results don’t do justice to the mental images. Flat and colourless. Ah well, it was worth a try…
Picture a stage; plain black backdrop, a soft white light fills the centre, two simply dressed dancers face each other, several feet apart.
Mistrust and uncertainty lend their movements a touch of the wildness and unpredictability of caged animals; never still, adrenalin fuelled hyperactivity. Ever wary of each other, their taught, angular, nervous motion betrays the tension between them. Constantly circling each other, testing, probing; never too close – that would be too risky. Bodies tense, they face each other like two knife-fighters – mock aggression only; all display and bravado. A quick stabbing motion, then an equally quick withdrawal – no attempt to harm, but testing each other out.
Now the testing finds a new form, less physical, more ritual: a display; strutting and posturing, but still the tension underlies everything. Movements are exaggerated, elaborate and showy – yet they begin to mirror each other, and an element of more coordinated interplay enters the dance; a series of questions and answers as the dancers watch each other in a new, more attentive way.
It is later. Safety is, for the moment, accepted – up to a point. The visual, physical testing of earlier has given way to a mutual emotional exploration. They move in slow, sinuous, graceful curves, intertwining yet hardly touching – occasionally brushing together, seemingly accidentally; a caressing motion yet without contact. Circling slowly, they come face to face: hands raised, fingertips touch for a moment, then draw away again. Arms stretched forward, one in turn reaches to the other, but their tentative advances are neither accepted nor rebuffed, just held in check by eyes averted. Again they circle, tenderly, sensuously, lithe and supple like swaying saplings in a gentle breeze, in a new synchronism as their understanding each of the other grows. Now they touch deliberately for the first time, face to face, eye to eye – a gesture of acceptance and trust. Then, still facing each other, they draw apart in an elegant and formal bow.
Energy returns, and graceful speed, but flowing now in smooth controlled power, a far cry from the nervous interplay earlier. Understanding each other, the dancers are no longer separate; an invisible but powerful bond ties them together, even when apart. Can they break it? What would it take – this much? No, the bond holds, its strength sufficient. Circling again they meet face to face; turn away and half circle only to face each other again; and again the movement is repeated – all paths lead back to each other. They try out this new togetherness in new ways; a moment of formality; a moment of delicate precision; each rejoices in the skills of the other.
And as unity strengthens, the dance becomes more energetic, almost frenzied. For a moment they find freedom from the turbulence in complete unison, like for like, but cannot yet sustain it; the synchronism breaks down and they become two again, returning to the flowing, separate, but complementary patterns of formality. But the rising energy still boils below; the two become more ever more alive, more passionate, blossoming in a climax where they are both two and one; individual yet indivisible from the whole, complementing each other in perfection.
So would I ever make a choreographer? I don’t think I’ll pack in the day job just yet…
Wednesday, February 11, 2004
As Denny also said a while back, birthdays aren’t especially significant events for me. But chatting with a friend recently I was surprised to realise how many of the activities and interests which I now think of as in part defining – or at least representing – who I am, were begun only since I turned 40.
Although I did a bit of rock climbing as a teenager, I only took it up seriously about seven years ago. But since then I’ve got equipped with the necessary hardware (climbers are renowned for their love of shiny things) and can lead the simpler climbs (up to VS – Very Severe – for anyone interested). I love the freedom and anarchy and escape and self-reliance and adrenalin and trust and focus and simplicity and being-out-there that climbing brings; the views are pretty good too.
For many years I allowed the constraints of having a young family to keep myself apart from hills and mountains that I’ve loved for as long as I can remember. But one day it dawned on me that I didn’t need to stay apart any longer; my two lads were easily old enough to come out in the hills with me, so we joined the Youth Hostels Association and that Easter spent three days hiking in the mountains of the English Lake District. Those Easter trips into the hills have become something of a tradition now; usually camping, as that accentuates the independence, the simplicity, the separation from the complications of everyday life and the closeness to nature.
Possibility is a fascinating country. The more you explore it, the more you find. One step leads to another and another and before you know it you’re face to face with what before had seemed impossible. The mountains in winter are even more beautiful than in summer; I was at the same time powerfully drawn to them yet felt impossibly remote from them; winter mountaineering just seemed totally beyond the realms of possibility for me. But with a small windfall, the impossible suddenly became achievable, as I booked myself on a winter skills course in Scotland a couple of years ago, returning last year with one of my lads to put those skills into practice.
Music has always been a very significant part of my life. And I’ve now found music-making with others to be the most enjoyable and fulfilling aspect of that. Yet my ability at the instruments I used to play was never really up to any kind of performing – it was purely for my own amusement and enjoyment. But about six years ago, events led me to take up the bass guitar – and I found an instrument ideally suited to my temperament, working quietly (well, relatively so!) in the background, supporting the other musicians – and simple enough not to need hours of practice every day!
In recent years I’ve come to value development of the whole person – mental, physical, social, spiritual. But the physical side was lacking. I used to run, but was wary of pushing that too hard as I have had knee problems. So four and half years ago I began cycling in to work – a 30 mile round trip into London and back. The first day nearly killed me… but it’s got just a little easier since then, nearly 17,000 miles later.
And now, of course, there’s this blog.
Is that all a bit self-congratulatory? Well, I reckon just every once in a while it’s okay to blow your own trumpet, and if not on a birthday, when else? Anyway, I can attempt to excuse it as an encouragement for anyone entering their fourth decade who fears that they’re “over the hill”. Don’t you believe it – the fun’s just starting!
Tuesday, February 10, 2004
Sitting bored in a fog-bound Jersey airport several years ago, I was at first irritated, then intrigued by the chuckles and guffaws coming from my colleague next to me, nose buried in a novel. Eventually I couldn’t stand it any longer and had to go and buy a copy of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” myself; before long we were both laughing out loud so much that an elderly (but I think young-at-heart) lady opposite came over, with a smile on her face, to ask what we were reading. Boredom transformed to laughter, all through words.
And again, more recently, sitting on a train reading "Captain Correlli’s Mandolin", I had to stop because I could no longer see the page clearly through the tears.
Such power to elicit emotional responses; to make us happy or sad or afraid or joyful or to feel we see inside the mind of another. Notice how thick books are? They use lots of words – lots and lots and lots of words all strung together. They say the same thing in different ways, they explain, they paint word-pictures, so that meaning is spread across many, many words and not just encapsulated in a single one.
Because therein lies a danger.
Single words like joy, sorrow, pain, love, happiness - on their own, what do they tell you? They can never be more than labels, a shorthand way to communicate something that is beyond words. And to try and do so in just one word.... How do you capture complex emotions like grief, fear, love, ecstasy in a thousand words, or ten thousand, let alone just one? How can one word contain the depth and breadth of human emotional experience? One-word labels are a painting in just primary colours.
Labels create expectations, tramlines for behaviour. “I am A therefore I should feel B”. Or “I feel X, therefore I should be doing Y”. And that can give rise to feelings of guilt that I don’t want to do Y, or that it seems out of place in the context of X. And I’d rather do Z but if I feel X then surely that’s wrong? All that confusion of intent and of feeling, just because a wordless experience sensed inside is given a label when it should have stood as something unique. And in the same way, labels give leverage for others to control us. “If you really loved me, you’d do X”.
Labels are constraining, they limit to what is acceptable within their bounds. Labels give rise to stuckness; an inability to move beyond the confines they define.
And perhaps most dangerous of all, labels can blind us to true feelings. The label creates a framework in our minds into which what we feel must be fitted; eventually only that part of the feeling which matches the framework makes it’s way into consciousness, and the truly felt experience fades away and we’re left with a hollow shell of false expectation that we feel obliged to fill. We mistake the feeling for the label, and are disappointed when we realise the shell is still empty, and the true feelings are lost. And so the opportunity to listen to the wisdom of our innermost selves passes us by. Yet outside the confines of the label may lie something unique and magical and powerfully alive.
How many people are there on this planet? How many distinct emotions do they each feel? Are any two truly the same? How many words are there in any one language? One-word labels can mask the uniqueness and wonder of every single one of us.
So use labels with care. Especially when applied to yourself. The alternative, of listening to the truth of your heart, is infinitely more empowering.
Monday, February 09, 2004
So many competing movies all playing at once. Bright fireworks of ideas exploding; some close to, in great flashes of technicolor insight, some distant, a faint spark that faded and vanished before he could turn to look and understand the form of the flashing synapses in his mind. A world of inspiration, of delight, of possibility.
Eyes closed, his mind runs back over thoughts of recent days, of energy rediscovered, an almost forgotten sense of the power of life; a deep love for all humanity that could embrace the world. The light of a spontaneous smile shines quietly for a moment, replaying in thought a note from a friend. Further down the carriage, the secret smile is noticed, and involuntarily mirrored – a kindred spirit perhaps, turning over her own positive thoughts in this no-man’s-land of the daily commute?
How to stay centred, to stay connected to that inner source which seems to tap into a limitless universal supply of goodness, in a world so obviously in need of it, and so apparently in denial of its existence?
That was his question of the moment.
Friday, February 06, 2004
When I was doing basic counselling training myself, I used to keep a personal journal. So it was natural that I’d follow that practice now, and a logical extension to think about publishing it, or parts of it, here. I wondered about putting an extract on the blog, but to do so loses the immediacy and therefore much of the value. So I’m posting the whole thing, session by session, as it happens, as I experience it. I have absolutely no idea where it will lead… Oh, and I’m afraid it’s rather long…
The room is quite small, but bright – a large window at the end opposite the door looks out over a grey and drizzly London afternoon; inside, the furnishing is sparse to the point of being Spartan – a small table by the window, a large plant breaks the room’s exposed angularity and adds a touch of life, and directly facing each other across it’s narrow width, two upright chairs. Gloomy though it may be outside, the room has a warm, bright feel. There is no apparent distinction between the two chairs; I take the nearer one.
Someone once defined counselling as two scared people sitting in a room. I don’t think either of us is scared exactly, but that definition does convey something of the equality in what follows. There’s no feeling of expert and subject, doctor and patient, barely even of leader and follower. Just two people, one of whom wants to help the other.
Even before we’ve entered the room I already have a sense of optimism; a strong positive feeling growing inside, of anticipation, of knowing this will be good, that she and I will understand each other; of excitement even. What sparks such a feeling? Who can say. Places of healing, of learning and growth, where people are valued and honoured and allowed to be, where humanity is central and all else peripheral; these places often have such a feeling about them, tangible as soon as you cross the threshold. And there’s body language, appearance, expression – all of those things that enable you unconsciously to gain an impression of someone the moment you see them. And the more authentic the person, the more accurate the impression, usually. I couldn’t at that stage say what specifically gave rise to that positive impression; perhaps it was not anything specifically positive so much as the complete absence of anything negative that might appear to be a barrier. The whole combination of her appearance, manner, voice and expression was open and created a welcoming space, yet without filling that space with anything at all.
So we sit, facing each other. Simple administrative formalities are soon dealt with. I was expecting some opening questions from her, yet she hardly takes steps to launch the conversation, but sits with an expectant smile, upright, hands folded in her lap. Perhaps she is allowing me a space to settle, but not expecting the silence, I take the lead. I’d been going through beforehand what I might say, but of course all those thoughts are forgotten in the moment. So I stumble and flounder and talk far too fast – she has to interrupt because words were misheard – and occasionally parts of my pre-prepared thoughts find their way into the stream of words, which skips and branches, flows and halts. I’m very conscious to begin with that I’m doing maybe 95% of the talking – which at this stage is probably reasonable. She has some questions, exploring the work issues – how do I feel, being this person at work that I don’t want to be? But I’ve been away from work for a week now, at home with my wife who is convalescing after a back operation, and the work issues have thankfully faded into the background for a while. Being someone who lives very much in the present moment it’s actually quite difficult to recapture the force and intensity of the troubling feelings from a week and more ago.
All through the session, she sits mostly upright, completely attentive, her face responding to the feeling in my words. It is unusual yet pleasant to be able to maintain eye contact naturally for extended periods – the majority of the session in fact; far from feeling a need to look away, the reverse is true - eyes seemed drawn to each other; hers are deep brown. It seems simply a natural expression of the complete focus by both of us on the exchanges between us.
So I only know what else was in that room from the few seconds entering and leaving; unusual for me as I normally carry away a comprehensive visual memory of such occasions. I can tell you she was wearing a simple turquoise zipped cardigan, earrings that matched the colour perfectly, and out of the corner of my eye I think I caught another glimpse of the same colour; a scarf maybe, perhaps laid across a coat on the floor. Next to her a few of the leaves on the plant were turning brown at the tips; what was outside that field of view I couldn’t say.
I may be imagining it, I don’t know, but I think something changed in her attitude when I mentioned I’d had some basic counselling training myself. Something showed in her eyes – a thrill of recognition I think. Discovering any commonality with another is usually good, and to find it unexpectedly in an area so central in one’s values… I’m making assumptions here about her values; nevertheless I don’t think I’m being fanciful if I say that her eyes lit up with something akin to excitement. Perhaps something fell into place at that point.
I thought about this afterwards; it felt one of the most significant parts of the whole encounter; a minor watershed, empowering for me and uplifting. My counselling training was only very basic, the first year at evening classes of a much longer programme, but I learned enough about empathic responses to recognise the possibility, especially later in the session, that her rising energy levels were at least in part her empathic reflection of my own expressions of enthusiasm as I talked about my hopes and desires. Yet at this point in the session, I was still under the influence of the troubles at work, so she was responding, I think, in a different way, with something beyond professional – or personal – empathy. Perhaps it was what they call deep empathy – being able to reach in and identify something not at that time apparent in consciousness to the client. Or perhaps I simply misread her expression.
Whatever. The experience was good.
We talked about the difficulty of owning creativity. How in truth it is part of me, yet I see it only as something that comes and goes – sometimes I have it, sometimes I don’t. Earlier we had talked about fear, how disempowering, how paralysing fear can be. At the time I couldn’t identify the source of my fear, or even whether it was fear I was feeling. Fear of losing my job? Fear of being “found out” – of only putting a minimal effort into my work? Fear of losing my new and therefore (to me) fragile reputation as a writer? Perhaps the latter to some extent, but it was only later that I realised the real fear was of losing whatever creative ability I may have, and even worse, of losing the insight that fuels it.
Creativity. I’ve long know that’s a thread that has run through all the successes in my life; nearly all of the things I’ve achieved of which I’m proud. Yet I’ve never really owned it; not as a core part of my being, always there to be called upon. Too often I’ve felt disconnected from that creativity – and I don’t altogether know why, don’t know what separates me from it, preventing me from recognising it within myself. Something to think about for next time.
The first half of the session was spent mostly exploring the negative issues that brought me there. But the second half dwelt much more on the positive, creative side. If she deliberately steered it that way, it was so gentle a touch that I didn’t notice; the conversation seemed naturally to flow that way. And through that second half I could feel my own energy levels rising; certainly a smile on my face much of the time and more open hand gestures, and I saw all of that reflected in her face, in her voice, in her eyes, in her gestures. Indeed, she remarked on it as evidence of how deep-seated within me, how much a part of me, is this desire to create, to write, to help.
And to be honest, she hasn’t been the first person to notice that. Or the second. Or the third.
I’m hesitating between two views. One that says she is a professional counsellor, very skilled and capable at what she does, and the light I saw in her eyes was an empathic reflection of my own natural enthusiasm and positive outlook once we had got away from work and onto creativity, writing and helping. A skilled empathic response on her part it may have been, but that in no way devalues it; it would be insulting to call it a “trick of the trade”. That response was allowing me to reconnect with an inner energy I haven’t felt in its full force for quite a while – not at any rate for more than a few moments at a time.
The other view says her engagement and energy was more than just a reflection of my own coming-alive; she was returning more than I was giving, because what she saw in me had value for her. And so that created a cycle of positive feedback; a spiralling rise in energy, presence and aliveness.
Perhaps it was a bit of both. But whatever the analysis, there’s no doubt that in that single 55 minute encounter I was able to reconnect with something that has lain dormant for a very long time. I left in a state both other-worldly in its sense of floating detachment from previous “problems” yet intensely in touch with the world immediately around; and also profoundly happy.
Wednesday, February 04, 2004
Love bade me welcome
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.
A guest, I answer'd, worthy to be here:
Love said, you shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marr'd them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat.
So I did sit and eat.
George Herbert (1593-1633)
We may have come a long way in our scientific and technological knowledge since those words were written. Yet strip all that aside, and I can’t help thinking that if were I to meet, say, a 17th century poet face to face, I would find it would be him teaching me and not the other way round.
Tuesday, February 03, 2004
I’m probably missing out on something, but I’ve never been one to see food as an art-form. Although sharing a meal together can be a happy social event, an excuse, should we need one, to spend time with friends, I can never regard the food itself as much more than fuel for the body. That may be why food adds to the pleasure of camping and climbing trips. I’m not bothered by the simple nature of the diet or the basic preparation facilities; quite the reverse – I delight in the simplicity of nutritious, satisfying meals prepared over a single-burner backpacking stove. The whole outdoors experience becomes perfectly integrated- existence focused on the essentials of shelter, food, and appreciation of the immediate environment; all else fades into a distant irrelevance.
Life in the outdoors is full of ritual. Small tents have to be kept tidy otherwise anarchy reigns and tempers fray as every other minute is spent in searching for something; like as not something found and put down only a minute ago. “A place for everything, and everything in its place” may sound a touch Draconian, but it works and avoids wasted time and false accusations against one’s tent-mate. So, morning starts with the washing ritual, followed by the first-coffee-of-the-day ritual (standing in a quiet campsite whilst most are still asleep, cradling a steaming hot cup in chilly hands, gazing at the hills and guessing what the weather has in store), then the breakfast ritual, then the sort-out-the-food-for-the-day ritual and finally the rucksack packing ritual. Hill food has to be easy to carry, easy to eat, high calorie-to-weight ratio and ideally based on complex carbohydrates. And last thing before leaving, down a pint of water – it’s easier to carry inside your stomach than on your back.
Knowing that it’s physiologically good to stop for an intake of fluid and calories is a great excuse for stopping to satisfy more than the physical needs of the body (yes, those as well…). Having to take off rucksack and delve inside to retrieve water bottle or thermos flask and cereal bar (granola bar in the US??) encourages you to site for a while and rest, turning away from the steep slope immediately ahead, to take in the expanding view unfolding below. This is another of the rituals of hillwalking; you soon develop an eye for a good stopping place - a flat-topped rock to sit on, maybe a large boulder to provide shelter from the wind and a backrest, and an unimpeded view into the valleys below.
These views tend to stick in the mind; having a snack-stop gives time to take in detail that otherwise would be passed over – the moving pattern of light and shade on a far hillside as the wind blows clouds across the sun; a squall blowing a wave of ripples across a lake tucked into the corrie far below; grasses near at hand bend and wave – always the wind making it’s presence felt. Or the eye follows possible scrambling or climbing routes up a rock face away across the slope, picking out the lines of weakness and mentally joining them in a continuous way to the summit. Weight is the enemy of fast, comfortable movement, so wherever possible, everything carried on the hill serves more than one purpose. So even food might be said to be dual purpose – it feeds the body and it encourages me to stop and feed the soul at the same time.
Although on day walks summits are often reached around lunch-time, they are rarely places to stop and relax and eat. More usually they are windswept, shrouded in mist, and accompanied by horizontal rain that drives its way into every crevice no matter where you look for shelter. So summits are somewhere to pause briefly, check the map (yes, you know where you are but it’s surprisingly easy to take a wrong path – every way is down), and move on. Lunch is had at whatever spot looks most inviting at any time after 11:30 – or indeed at any and all times. Where and when to eat depends far more on the environment than it does on the clock.
The main meal at the end of the day is one of the best times when camping. A time of purposeful yet restful activity, crouched over a stove, with luck in the golden light of the setting sun – yes, it does occasionally happen that way, more often than you might believe, and when it does the effect is quite magical. Sitting perched on a folding three-legged stool, plate in lap, watching the last rays of the setting sun setting the peaks and clouds ablaze whilst dusk has already arrived down in the valley, shoulders hunched against the evening chill, savouring the inner warmth from piping-hot supper and enjoying simply being there too much to retreat from the cold into the tent.
Even on rainy days, mealtimes are still a pleasure. Provided the wind direction is as predicted when the tent was pitched, I can sit in the porch, sheltered by a pegged-out door flap, watching grey clouds and lashing rain whilst the stove hisses gently just outside the doorway, then retreat into warmth and comfort when the meal is ready. Mealtimes when camping take on a significance that far outweighs the simplicity of their menus.
Oh, you want to know what we actually eat? Okay here goes…
Breakfast is of cereals, long-life milk, a banana, maybe some bread and margarine.
Snacks during the day: three cereal (aka granola/muesli) bars (no chocolate – too sticky!).
Lunch: on-the-spot sandwiches of crackers and cream cheese from a tube (quick and easy, and no waste if there’s no time to have lunch), followed by a slab of fruit cake or sticky ginger cake and an apple
Dinner: Something rice or pasta based, like long-life tortellini with a tomato and basil sauce.
And as much coffee as I get time to brew.
For the past week, Lois has been running a guest spot, inviting a number of bloggers to share their thoughts on what blogging means to them - how they started, why they do it, how it's changed them. Today it's my turn. If you've not already seen the series (now into it's second week!) go and pay Lois a visit, read the words of some wonderful writers you may not have come across before, and discover a blog full of honesty, wisdom and hope.