I would brace into the wind five days a week, the blowing, biting cold coming in from the North Sea like some strange form of masochistic therapy. If I let go of the push rims, the wind would whisk me backwards, spinning me, scraping my wheelchair into the old painted rails along the beach promenade. I would look to the horizon, see the offshore supply boats labouring out to the rigs, and in the foreground I’d see the other constant : surfers, their neoprene heads bobbing like seals, black skin on skin against the bite of the winter waves.
Back then, being paralysed was still a fresh wound. I allowed my mind to wander and wonder at how I could still engage with the great outdoors. I craved escape from concrete and tarmac. The emotional pain of paralysis was raw, but seeing surfers with their vans on the beach front, playing, their connection with each other and the waves palpable, somehow never tore at my scabs. It looked cold. A little bleak. I almost never saw anyone actually surfing a wave.
Almost thirty years on, I am a veteran of paraplegia. I work as a performance coach with the concept of ‘flow’. I regularly hear how surfing is a great way to experience more of it – the wonderful presence and zone of altered consciousness that I’ve experienced in other sports and creative endeavours. I have been moved by the you tube clip of ‘duct tape surfing’ where a paraplegic woman is bonded to the back of her son’s friend and just loves the freedom of being out catching waves. Click here to watch!
And then, synchronicity or not, a friend connected to “SurfABLE Scotland’ asks “will I be an ambassador for the organisation?”. I felt a little resistant. Life was full. How could I be an ambassador for a sport that never appealed and that I’ve never even tried? How do you even surf when you can’t stand up and don’t want binding in duct tape? But I was curious. I’m scared of the sea. Of its power. Of my vulnerability. Signs that I should go.
The swell rises and I am shoved forward fast, raking the water with my arms to try and catch the wave. I feel it gather height as it picks me up and I teeter on its peak. Then I am plummeted towards the beach, riding in foam. I’m not sure if to be scared or exhilarated, but a grin breaks across my face. It’s a giveaway. Something deep within is speaking. I am thirsty for more.
My summer in Scotland has been like no other. Thanks to the team at SurfABLE, I have escaped the tarmac and found new friends. In the force of water and wind, perceived problems disperse, I connect with my body, with my soul, and some form of magic unfolds. There is freedom.. There is flow. Thank you Kev, Glyn, all the volunteers and the Lossiemouth lifesaving crew.
Surfing without functional legs involves lying prone on a surf-board, and shifting your body-weight around with your arms to stay with the wave, angle the board etc. Some special surf boards are available with ‘risers’ to support the chest, and handles to help shift your weight. See pic below thanks to Hannah Dines 🙂
There was nothing oozing or flowing or majestic about the scene. The earth’s core was projectile vomiting liquid trails; raw, violent energy rapidly calmed by the cool black mountainscape. I was hypnotised beyond my pain and fever by the liquid magma spatting and spewing into orange rivers. An intravenous line feeding hard-core antibiotics into my system obscured my view of the Icelandic volcano bubbling and breathing its fire. I lay still under the hospital sheets. I watched the raw beauty and chaos of nature play out on the screen. I noticed the fight and the fear dance through my body with the infection that had taken grip. I noticed a choice. I loitered on the steps in front of a familiar gaping doorway. I could step within, into the mansion of despair, wander dark hallways and fumble into darker rooms; or I could turn with eyes closed to the sunlight, and warm my face.
I might have been in the Arctic Ocean. I might have been pedalling a bike on the back of a sailboat, generating power, testing transitional technology and exploring perspectives of the climate change crisis.
“We miss you!” the text messages from my team-mates said before they’d disappeared off-grid, headwind into stormy seas in the direction of Greenland. They were generous – we’d only all met two days before – but I missed them too. I had been so excited to be part of a team, to be bound together not only by the compact space of a beautiful sixty-foot yacht, but by a clear goal, a passion and a purpose.
My sudden diversion into an Iceland emergency department marked another all too frequent near miss. I like living. I love feeling alive. I avoided telling anyone back home. I wanted silence, no noise of concern or story. I was done with the drama of trauma, and whilst the tornado raged around my body, I lay in the eye of the storm. It felt new, to be in a hospital emergency department, completely peaceful.
When I did connect, lovely caring messages arrived. “So sorry you have missed out on the sail” they read, but I felt no sorrow. I noticed what had arrived rather than what not arrived. I noticed the beautiful people looking after me. I felt care and comfort. I allowed myself to be mesmerized by the magnificent volcano. I savoured the fresh, healthy and delicious food that regularly arrived. There was porridge and cream and kefir for breakfast for goodness sake. I had hours to rest and sleep and relax like I had never known possible. I mean, what was there not to like?
In the original adventure, Yacht Qilak with its extraordinary crew and six strong women were making their way across the Arctic Ocean. I watched a dot on a tracker as they slowly tacked toward the mass of Greenland. Unbeknownst to me, half of them were also laid in bed with wretched stomachs, sea-sick as they tossed through tough weather. They were battling with time and storms to reach the Greenlandic shore and begin the science and exploration intended. As they reached the shores of Greenland, much whiter than those of Iceland – some Viking real-estate scam there – I moved to a hospital hotel, a stepping stone back to reality. Slowly I eased back into the world.
As I rolled down a rainbow street in Rekjavik, a remnant of Pride weekend, I wondered at the adventure I was in. “Merge with the fight to transcend it” said Aureal, wise and golden on the screen of my phone. “Say yes to the fight”. I had. For the first time in my rollercoaster of medical incidents, I had dived in, no resistance or frustration, and stepped into the peaceful space that always lies in the eye of the storm.
The hum of the fridge and a ticking clock distracted me from sleep, along with a banging head, more intense than ever after yesterday’s race. Was it the pressure of a big race, selection for the Tokyo Paralympic hanging entirely on this one weekend? Or a cocktail or hormones, neurochemicals, the change in climate… I considered the scenario ahead: alarm at the crack of dawn, getting to the start line of the road race in the lashing rain, finishing in a puddle of piss due to ongoing bladder dramas, no shower, packing the bike up, rushing to the airport. Then I mused the other path, the path of least resistance.
“But this is what you do” an inner voice told me, “You always show up. You always do what you say you are going to. You can’t back out now.”
A few friends messaged, encouraging me on. “You can do it. Go race, show them what you’re made of.” They meant well.
I am headstrong. I wouldn’t have become paralysed if it weren’t for that; I would have listened to the screams from my gut and come back down from the cliff face. My pattern for years was to ramp up, then crash and burn, recover, course correct, then repeat. It is a pattern I’ve been working hard to release. My driving curiosity for a third Olympic cycle was experimenting with being gut-strong: if I listened deeply to my truth and honoured what my body was needing, could performance be better than ever rather than being driven to the point of collapse?
It was getting late, and I got wrapped up in the drama of the decision I was facing. I felt the current of racing struggle through my body; resistance. I talked to a compassionate friend. I cried. Then I climbed into bed and stopped. In the darkness of the Air BnB, I listened. Not to the fridge or the clock, but to myself. When I thought of racing my head got heavier, a feeling of struggle and pain, almost dread.
“What if you just say no? Enough is enough,” another voice reasoned. It was an unfamiliar voice.
I heard my breathing.
I listened some more.
I allowed the question to sink in.
“Enough is enough” reverberated. I heard the Chumbawamba song playing, chanting the words, “Open your eyes. Time to give up. Enough is enough is enough is enough!” I thought of my friend Will, a big fan of the Chumbas, and wondered if he was speaking to me. His climbing accident, three months after my own all those years before, had taken him to the other side. I felt often though that he wasn’t far.
“Is it time?”
Some peace arrived, and I sank into sleep.
Endings often take us by surprise. The unexpected is uninvited, a shocking guest gate-crashing our party. We imagine it turning out a certain way, but things go wild. The medal I was striving for in Tokyo 2020 was a goal that had limped through Covid into 2021, and then dissolved in that weekend, washed away in the rain of a dreary Belgium spring.
Soon after, there were some long days in accident and emergency, a trail to urology and a solution to the puddles that were pouring. I’m a great believer that we embody our deep emotions, and I started to connect deeper. “How long have I been pissing myself off?”
I realised I had not enjoyed the last few years of racing at all. Without noticing, I had been afraid of change. I love to ride my bike, and was scared to stop the big goals that gave me so much meaning and reason. What if letting go meant losing my most faithful partner….?! Deeper than that though, I was bored of the same routine, of 13 years non-stop on the hamster wheel, of such a driven, solitary life. I needed more connection; love; expansion.
It seems ironic that as a doctor of gold geology that I managed to metamorphose a 6 cm infected rock in my own bladder. It’s been removed now, and flow of the golden stuff has returned in so many ways. I realise that my most faithful partner is not really my bike (though I still love it dearly!). It is the ability to listen, not to words and voices, but to what lies beneath, to the barometer within. Perhaps this is our Inner Gold. A better medal than any.
When we look back at the journey of our life, we can see moments where our path was radically altered. Rarely do we see how the small actions of every day lead to big events of the future. We don’t see how the daily donut leads to diabetes, how choosing television instead of a walk out in nature leads to gaining kilos. Or the contrary: how the extra deep dive into a training session gets us fitter, or how the choice to recover at the right time can get us stronger. We don’t see it until a defining moment arrives. Small daily negative habits can lead us to a crisis. Small daily positive routines can lead us to surprisingly good places.
Rarely do we sense those defining moments in advance, rather they creep up on us. But tomorrow I will ride a World Cup race and I know it will be a defining moment in the small micro-sphere of my life. Whilst one athlete’s endeavours can seem self-centric and insignificant compared to the much bigger issues of our planet, I have also come to believe in the power of small to change big. To keep going after so many years of immersion in Paralympic sport I have explored deeply into my motivation. I have been led forward by how inspirational sport is in general, from the pure effort and commitment, the teamwork and support and camaraderie, and the attention to the miniscule details of performance. And I am motivated by all those that I compete with and all those that have supported me – an unbelievable array of companies, organisations, individual professionals and friends. You know who you are and I am so very grateful for your belief and companionship in this journey.
So now, the night before the first race in almost two years in our Covid world, I am intrigued and curious. Winning Gold in the Rio 2016 Paralympics I pushed and dug so deep I was left completely drained, unable for months afterwards to expend energy on social interactions or anything other than pure daily survival. This time I have flipped things up. I crashed and took to big skies and big rides of Quest 79 for recovery. I got dropped from the national team. But for the last two years I have trained hard and rested hard. I have listened deeply to the signals from my body, adopted new recovery strategies from other gentle activities to meditation, brainspotting and some rather unique energy practices. My peripheral vision on life is back. There are so many interesting projects and exciting things ahead – Quest 79 continues to spread ripples of inspiration, and I have stimulating work from brainspotting, coaching and groupwork on training our brains, and in the last few weeks starting as a Peak Performance Coach with the Flow Research Collective. The horizons are exciting, but tomorrow brings my dream of putting a balanced few years of training to the test. Surely when every cell of our body and mind are feeling healthier and we listen within more deeply than ever, our potential to perform expands?!
Let’s see. But one thing is for sure. Life is a learning journey, and whether our passion lies in sport or any other domain of life, it is a wonderful thing to have the opportunity to explore and practice creating. I know the previous approach I took was unsustainable and I have enjoyed this experiment and all the people that I’ve been privileged to connect with in the journey.
Whatever the outcome for me tomorrow – onwards to Tokyo – or a new fork in the road – THANK YOU to you all. The mystery of life is a wonderous thing!
Quest 79 seems to have gained new momentum in the last few months, and if you are following you may have noticed more activity on social media. I am feeling grateful to Clubhouse for this, and particularly coach and inspirator Pete Cohen who has been really supportive in helping me spread the word. As a coach, Pete keeps challenging me, asking me questions like ‘What is your vision for Quest 79?’ and ‘How many people’s lives do you want to impact with this?’. I flounder a little in my answers because I don’t have a numerical target. I do however have an emotional vision of inspiration spreading around the world like a positive virus, infecting people with possibility and enabling us all to shine brighter.
It seems to me that number 79 was gifted to me via the mysterious universe. You probably know the ‘back-story’ by now, and if not, you can watch this short video. It seems 79 is a rather magical number, not only as the atomic number of gold, but in the world of numerology, it is all about personal growth, creativity, and being on a ‘spiritual expedition’. It also says that it is not about material interest, but solely for the good of others: that the profit from it is gratitude: a perfect fit for the emotional vision I have for it.
My belief is that when we take a personal Quest – a journey of discovery – that we step out of our comfort zone into the unknown. We don’t know if we can do something 79 times, or for 79 days, and that challenges us to go deeper and to learn and discover something new about ourselves and the world around us. Whatever connection your Quest has to the number 79, I am certain it helps to find some of that shiny beautiful stuff we all have inside us – the inner gold.
So I am grateful for Quest 79 arriving in my life, and being able to share it with others. I am inspired by the stories that are emerging and the incredible abilities, passion, creativity and kindness that we human beings have! Clubhouse has connected me to some amazing human beings and so much positivity, open-ness and generosity. I am so excited by the amazing Quests that are emerging as a result. For example, 79 energy healings are happening as I write this (https://www.live4energy.co.uk/quest-79-healing/ ); 79 Messy Rainbows podcasts by two young sisters age 6 and 9 to help other kids with messy lockdown heads https://anchor.fm/ourmessyrainbows ; 79 days of a Clubhouse room to ‘Create Your Fantastic Future’ with Pete https://www.mi365.me/ 79 sea-swims with Sports Hub Ally Meredith https://www.linkedin.com/in/ally-meredith-17524286/ , 79 mountain-climbs by an 11-year old boy https://youtu.be/EvVHQoXG7xw , 79 days of kindness, planting 79 trees, 79 days of reading, 79 days of practicing a new skill, 79 minutes of meditation a week….the list goes on. Read this link to get inspired and see the variety of beautiful things that people are doing. https://www.quest79.com/quest-79-inspirational-challenges-list/
Dreaming and future-creating is a favourite habit of mind, and to that theme I am currently creating an ‘open’ Quest 79 Adventure to visit a magical land that I feel embodies 79. If you are interested to join, read on. Bhutan is a country that challenges the world on how to do things: the country is led by Gross National Happiness rather than Gross National Product, with social, environmental and cultural impact valued as much as financial. It is the only carbon negative country in the world, and leads the way in concepts like compassionate conservation. I have been working closely with a very special organisation, My Bhutan who I discovered via The Explorer’s Club to create a journey of ‘inner exploration’. My Bhutan have deep connections within the country and with the Bhutanese royal family, so the journey will involve talks, meetings, ceremony, cultural ritual and experience with some very special people that My Bhutan are linking us with. I’ll blog more about this soon, but please get in touch if you have interest in a journey of a lifetime with this small group Quest 79 Adventure to Bhutan that we are planning for 14-25th April 2022.
Meanwhile, I am going to let Quest 79 evolve organically and see what naturally unfolds. I will do the best that I can to respond to messages, to share your incredible quests, and to support and nurture all the special things that are happening. I am in the process of creating a charity to help support the project to spread inspiration and positivity around the planet. I apologise if I miss anything, and I am very grateful to the individuals who have come forward to offer help and support in different areas, especially social media support by student Olivia Laird of Dundee University, Sports Hub Ally Meredith , website work to come by Creative Midfield, our new digital medal from Hi-Create, and continued web hosting thanks to Calico UK, content help from Creative Words…overwhelming generosity! And to continuous support from Nomadist for Quest 79 digital support, my website & the amazing healthcare company BBraun for supporting me in all that I do.
THANK YOU ALL. Shine your lights bright, believe in what seems impossible, and please join in to help spread this great, positive virus.
Welcome to 2021! The events of 2020 have been a great reminder that if we allow external events to affect how we think and feel, then we are travelling a rocky road. This blog is all about taking back control of our mind to serve our health, wellbeing, and deeper sense of peace and happiness. I hope it is useful given the uncertainty many of us are experiencing, and our focus on past, present and future in a pandemic world: how it ‘was’, how it ‘is’ and how it ‘might be’.
UNCERTAINTY has been a theme of the year and looks set to continue. Any sense of certainty we used to believe we had is starting to feel like an illusion. Uncertainty is simply the gap between where we are and where we aspire to be. If we accept that we are where we are, with what is, then we are less focused on the GAP that we perceive exists between present and future. A sense of peace arrives. With that we can embrace curiosity and excitement about the journey ahead, instead of anxiety and stress about things not working out the way we might want them to.
Here is a practical example of what I mean. I have just finished my first hard training session of the year on the bike. All of my training sessions are set to power targets for certain intervals of time. A bike computer informs me of how many watts I am producing and for how long. That means that my brain is being fed constant information about ‘the GAP’: that is the difference between my performance and my desired performance. The mechanistic, numbers-focused approach takes my attention to the gap between what is happening and what I ideally want to be happening. Often this means I am under the target power, because in a focused session like this, any good training programme will most often be stretching you to the limits of current capacity. The effect of this is that I feeding my thoughts a message that I am ‘never enough’: one of the underlying constructs of most human mindsets which I believe leads to a lot of the dis-ease that so many of us feel. This leads to a sense of stress and creates an iterative cycle of focusing again on ‘the gap’ between where or who I am, and where or who I want to be.
How messed up is that?! Surely the things we choose to spend so much time on should be more fun. Surely riding a bike should be a wonderful thing for our health, not messing with our stress response in an unhealthy way.
So, how do we change these habits? One of my key motivations to train for the Tokyo 2021 Paralympics is that whilst I won Gold in Rio, I struggled my way there through various health problems, surgeries and injuries. So, my journey towards Tokyo 2021 is experiential, playing with my own mind at a deeper level than I have before: designing my mindset to optimize my potential through a healthier relationship with myself and with time. This was my ‘WIBA 2020’ (Wouldn’t It Be Amazing…) now shifted to 2021.
Relationship with TIME is one of the areas I am exploring: kind of interesting given my main event – the time trial – is a race against time! I have often felt pressured by time, sensing there is never enough of it, or that the clock ticks too fast. Here is an example of how I played with that in today’s training session that I’ve already begun describing. I had to repeat the same sequence twice. The first sequence felt hard. I struggled to hold powers, and I definitely didn’t enjoy the effort. In the second sequence, I shifted my focus. Instead of looking at the computer screen intensely focused on the watts and how I was struggling to hold them, I let go. I imagined myself to be beneath Mt Fuji instead of in a cold car park in Europe. I loosely had my eyes on the power, but my focus was bigger and wider, far and beyond. In my mind I was watching the incredible firework display above Mt Fuji to celebrate the Olympics – as the original 2020 Olympic fireworks would be out of date in summer 2021, a wonderful New Year display was given which you can watch here . I imagined feeling part of something truly special, connected to the strength of human spirit, to ‘spirit in motion’ (the Paralympic motto), to the mountains, the sky, the infinity of life and everything beyond. I changed my relationship with time. Instead of Tokyo 2021 being in the future, with a huge hurdle between me and it, I imagined being there enjoying the moment. I hit the powers, and I enjoyed myself in the process.
How beautiful is that? The simple fact that we can imagine ourselves somewhere else instantly eases suffering and pain, and brings a sense of peace and joy. It reminds me of a technique that helped me when I was first paralysed. I would look up at mountains and feel sadness and pain that I could not be there. Memories of walking and being in them would haunt me. A friend suggested that I imagine myself with a giant’s hand, and that I could run that giant hand across the mountains, feeling all of the crags and valleys, textures of rocks, grass and heather. Incredibly, I felt to be there, in the mountains, and the heart-ache and pain dissolved.
A simple shift in perception can change our experience, take us from suffering to freedom, from pain to ease. Whatever you aspire to in 2021, I hope that you can travel the journey with a greater sense of freedom and ease than ever before. Perhaps that is a gift of Covid: to remind us that we are all more flexible, adaptable and creative than we may have previously realised. We can design our mind to embrace uncertainty, delete the gaps, and imagine ourselves already where we want to be.
I will be running a MIND DESIGN workshop in February 2021. If you’d like to release more of your potential, feel more peace and less internal conflict and dis-ease, then I would love to help you on that journey.
WARNING: This blog is written to bring light and and positivity, but the subject matter begins quite tough.
A few weeks ago, Corey, the 16 year old son of some friends, took his own life: a shocking, sad and unforeseen event. His family are certain that if it weren’t for coronavirus and the associated challenges of this year, it would never have happened. I am sure there are many other not dissimilar stories that send shockwaves of sadness through families and communities.
We live in uncertain times, an era that for many brings unprecedented suffering and adversity. We are pushed out of our comfort zones, confronted with challenges, forced to change our habits and to look within; to ask questions about survival and resilience, about values and priorities. We are wading in a sea of uncertainty. Many face fear, anxiety, depression and other difficult emotions as a result.
These difficult emotions are rarely experienced on such a large scale as induced by this pandemic. When difficult events occur at a global level like now however, there is a bizarre kind of magic that I sense within it. It is vulnerability and navigating the difficult stuff of life that strengthens our human connections. I experienced first-hand my own spinal cord injury that paralysed me, how friends, strangers and communities rally to bring light, strength and support. The great gift in the challenges of life is that human spirit shines through. Even in trauma, there is light, and the story of my friends and their son Corey is another great example of this Corey is devastatingly gone, but how many more lives is the family and community’s traumatic loss now saving? Good emerges from bad.
It is now more than ever we must dig deep within, and work to focus our attention on the emotions that can lift us, and on how we can lift those around us. We are connected as humans like waves on an ocean. Our thoughts, feelings and actions ripple out, affecting somebody, somewhere. As practices of mindfulness teach us, we can notice and observe these feelings but we do not have to embody them. We can strip back the apparent complexity to the simplicity of being alive, being grateful, and being kind.
In my coaching work the theme that constantly arises is how unkind we can be to ourselves. We tell ourselves things and put ourselves through suffering that we would never wish on anyone. So if you do one thing differently as a result of reading this, start by being kinder to yourself, and know that will spread like a wave into the world around you.
I’d like to share my word for the year with you too. Nothing to do with Iceman Wim Hof, though I think his work is fantastic. ICE. ICE is a great remedy for physical injuries, and this version of ICE is a tonic for our emotional strains.
Remember to remember the ICE in you
INNER GOLD – you are strong, special and capable, with unique gifts and abilities
CONNECTION – being you can affect & inspire those around you
ENVIRONMENT – respect and enjoy nature to make the world a better place
ICE emerged as the core values of our team as we plan to create the POLE OF POSSIBILITY at 79 degrees latitude and longitude in Antarctica. 79 being the atomic number of gold and a number that’s become special to me through winning the 79th medal and gold in the Rio Paralympics and the Quest 79 project. More at POP.KarenDarke.com
I was born in the West Yorkshire town of Halifax, England. It’s famous for old mills, it’s building society and more recently a few TV dramas like Happy Valley (yes I grew up there!). My first ever bank account was with ‘The Halifax’, and the account required me to give it a title. I called it DREAMS.
Thinking beyond the realms of what seems logical or probable has been a lifelong habit. It’s reflected in the types of quotes I am drawn to: What you can do, or dream you can, begin it; Boldness has genius, power and magic in it (Goethe). A more recent anonymous one I particularly like is Excellence is the result of caring more than others think is wise, risking more than others think is safe, dreaming more than others think is practical and expecting more than others think is possible.
In 2014 I was introduced to someone with a similar ‘dream big’ approach to life. José Manuel Lopez had just completed a race called I’mpossible. It involved doing an Ironman Triathlon every day for thirty days. For those unfamiliar with IRONMAN that is 2.4 mile swim, 112 miles of cycling and then a mere 26.2 mile marathon. Of course even more extreme versions of that exist now too: like double, triple and ultra Ironman editions, but staying on track with the story, José Manuel seemed to me like he must be superhuman. I had considered doing one ironman and it seemed like an outrageous prospect to demand that much of my shoulders. How could anyone’s body sustain such a feat of endurance daily for a month?! José Manuel claimed it was a combination of his mind and his faith. I found it fascinating that he didn’t look like a ripped obsessive athlete and he seemed very rounded. He works as a psychiatric nurse (perhaps a certain irony there), and has a busy family life. He had decided to continue and see how many Ironman distances he could do in one year, raising money for charity and aiming for a Guiness World Record of 100 in a year. To fit this into his busy life, he would finish a night shift, do an Ironman during the day, catch maybe an hour or two of sleep and then go back to do another shift! I was so impressed at his seemingly superhuman ability that I shook his hand and agreed that I would do the last Ironman of his year with him, thinking “if he can do 100, surely I can do 1”. In the end he broke the Guiness World Record and managed to complete 90 Ironman distances in a year. Joining him on his ultimate effort was a privilege, but more than anything a reminder that when we overcome the limitations of our mind then we make surprising things possible. You can see the short film here.
What seems impossible to one person, isn’t even a grain of sand in the shoe to another. Our versions of what is possible are largely dictated by what we have become trained to believe: based on our childhood, our life experiences, our social and cultural environments and so on. From sport to business, the pattern is the same. Climbing the local hill to the supermarket is a version of Everest to some. Losing a few million in a bad business decision then gaining it all and more back again might be some people’s version of a ‘regular day in the office’ but way beyond conceivable imagination to others.
During Covid-19 lockdown I’ve been reflecting on these views of possible and impossible and I’mpossible! It brought be back to the last of my Quest 79 journeys and consideration of how I’ve been approaching it. The continent is Antarctica. For over a decade I have ‘dreamed’ of this, but it has always seemed somehow impossible on many levels – physically, financially, environmentally and so on. However, finally, during lockdown, something has unlocked in me. It seems that a surprising plan is unfolding that I believe will lead to this journey.
I didn’t realise when I began the Quest79 project (after winning gold, the 79th medal for Britain in the Rio Paralympic Games), that 79 is the atomic number of gold. I later learned that 79 degrees latitude and longitude lies in unknown, virgin Antarctica. On realising this strange synchronicity, it seemed obvious that these coordinates of 79/79 should become the point to aim for in Antarctica.
Instead of following the trodden path to the South Pole, the plan is to create the POLE OF POSSIBILITY at 79/79. The challenging, uncertain and complex environment of Antarctica is a representation of the world we live in. The creation of the new pole will be marked with an emblem that will inspire hope about what can be achieved when we unite with heart towards a purpose. I see it as representing ‘Inner Gold’, the possibility within us all to make a difference.
I’m feeling an equal mix of excitement and intimidation as is normal for most of us with any challenge that lies before us. Being paralysed means lots of ‘hidden’ challenges like body temperature control, skin care, toilet challenges and of course, not being to walk that make an adventure like this a huge project. However, we always have a choice; to contract back into our familiar, known world, or to step forward and expand into an unknown, unfamiliar place, where vast new possibilities exist.
In that zone of unknown possibilities, we always learn and discover something new, and find the opportunity to change our world. Instead of allowing my left-brain logical mind to censor possibility and introduce all the reasons why things may not be possible, I prefer to play with the belief “Wouldn’t it be amazing to find a way to make that possible?”.
I know I am not unique in thinking like this, and I have come across some interesting approaches to health and wellbeing that ask the question “What else might be possible?”. Just this week I discovered something called the Possibility Principle, an idea originating from a man called Lester Levenson who after being given a few months to live, began to systematically release every negative emotion he was experiencing; and of course, lived for many years beyond. I too have learned a system of healing that involves strengthening ourselves to the negative emotion we experience, and flicking switches to imbue the opposite. I have experienced the benefits. It seems at times too simple to accept that we can transform negative emotions that easily; especially when we have perhaps struggled with difficult things for years.
Through my journey exploring this, POSSIBILITY has become a way of living for me. That one simple question “How can I / we make that possible?” holds enormous power.
This philosophy has led me to the desire to encourage others to step into the realm of possibility. I always find a good starting place is to begin by doing something bold and brave, something that is slightly at the edge of our current zone of possibility. In find ways to make that possible, life changes, and all sorts of others things in all areas of life suddenly become more possible than before. The Quest79 project has been all about this, and there are some fantastic stories on the YouTube channel. You might like to begin with this introductory video about the POLE OF POSSIBILITY project https://youtu.be/_M8h4NLdbN8
I’m also proud to say that Sir Ranulph Fiennes is our patron. Officially recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s greatest living explorer, and living a life exploring the boundaries of possibility. From his Transglobe Expedition in 1979 (love it that number 79 appears in there again!), to being afraid of heights but climbing Everest, his stories have always inspired me, and I hope they will you. www.ranulphfiennes.co.uk
If you too would like to step out of your comfort zone and expand your world of possibility (even more than perhaps Covid-19 has taken you!), then please get in touch and share your idea. Read more at the POLE OF POSSIBILITY project at https://pop.karendarke.com/ It would be fabulous to hear about what you discover, have you involved and to include you on the POLE OF POSSIBILITY flag. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain!
If your need a spark to get your ideas going, then you might like to check out these ‘home adventurers’ who have inspired me during the Quest 79 project…
Thanks for reading this article. Each article has had a theme that I hope will be useful for you, a kind of gift that I have learned from each of the Quest 79 journeys. I hope you have enjoyed the series and the virtual travel experience, exploring both ‘outside’ and ‘inside’. Thanks for following and please get in touch if you are interested to join the POLE OF POSSIBILITY project.
Since the rock-climbing accident that paralysed me and took me to the brink of leaving this world, I have come close to dying another five times. That has only been the occasions I’m conscious of and there have no doubt been many near misses of which I was blissfully unaware.
The author Richard Bach said, “Here is a test to find whether your mission on Earth is finished: If you’re alive, it isn’t.” As I am still very much here and alive, I keep looking for what there is to find; onwards and forwards with unfolding purpose.
Whenever life gets interesting – some might say traumatic – I find myself like an onion. I keep peeling to expose new layers. It is always a process of discovery, even when it is painful. I have learned to embrace the process with curiosity, intrigued to discover what I will learn and where it will lead. When this process of peeling hasn’t arrived with me through ‘wake-up calls’, then it seems I can’t help but seek ways to step out of comfort, as if every cell in my body is shouting “more, show me more”. I am driven by a deep sense that not a moment of this journey for which I have chosen to come here can be frittered away. In this life I am on for maximum experience, like a crazy Disney rollercoaster ride through the journey of meeting myself.
What surprises me though, is the change that happens when I least expect it; not in the midst of near-death drama or on an adventure way out of my comfort zone, but in the more sedate times that on the surface it seems are insignificant in terms of life change.
The most recent of my Quest 79 rides was what I named ‘The Continental Way’. It was a five week cycle journey following about 3000km of the Atlantic coast of France and then across the Pyrenees to join the Camino de Santiago through northern Spain. In comparison to other rides it seemed simple: European roads, no gravel or even potholes to negotiate, and certainly no rickshaws and donkeys. Beds could be found when camping got too wet, communication was relatively easy and the level of drama was low. However, long days riding, fiestas and sleepless nights in the proximity of snoring Spaniards made this ride feel like a bigger test of endurance than ever before. It felt far from the contemplative, transformative experience that I might have expected in following a pilgrim’s trail; far from Martin Sheen’s portrayal in the film ‘The Way’.
Here is a sample of ‘My Camino’ experience
It took me a week to arrive. Until I watched the sun sink and burst amber across the foaming surf, until I collapsed with five hundred kilometres of arm- ache into the cosy cocoon of my tent in the woods of La Crabasse L’Eau, my soul had been missing: lost somewhere in the tide that has swept me from racing to journeying, from athlete to adventurer. The tide that I have swirled in for a decade.
We began our journey in the tiny Breton village of Hopital-Camfrout, once home to a leprosy hospital and the beginning of others’ Caminos. In theory we were pilgrims, though I’m not sure what we sought beyond a quiet place to rest our bodies, clean water and food. Maybe that’s part of the mystery, not knowing what we’re looking for until we find it.
It was my penultimate continent of the Quest 79 rides. Camping close to the breaking waves of the Atlantic, I was lulled to sleep with mosaic images of places and faces of the previous three years. I’d been handbiking a rollercoaster around the world. Every lump and bump is recorded in my arms. Every smile and kindness of all of the rides is entrained in my heart. Perhaps that’s why the heavy clouds that had hung around after the effort involved in Paralympic success had finally cleared.
The Camino wanders between pretty villages with old stone churches and shuttered houses with colourful window boxes, alive with invitations to ‘Peregrinos’ – the Pilgrims – to sample the menu of the day or take a bed in a hostel. The Peregrinos are guided by the iconic symbol of the ‘Way’, a painted yellow Concha (shell) shining bright on blue, with a bold yellow arrow beneath indicating which way to go. Everyone walks with purpose in their stride, the ‘Way’ beckoning to move onward and forward. The path is often at the roadside or crosses it as it twists across fields, and as we pedalled by we exchanged calls of “Buen Camino”. I wondered about each person’s journey: Why were they there? What was their story? Why did they walk?
The rhythmic circles of propelling a bike seemed to lull each of us into a quiet inner space. A feeling of peace arrived with me, each day a moving meditation. My brain had emptied and let go somewhere in France. Beyond the next pedal revolution and immediate survival needs, I wasn’t trying to figure anything out. But when the riding stopped and our intriguing group reformed, the contrast to the quiet of the day was radical. My friend Paco was on! Fast, busy, bossy, somewhat frantic, an embodiment of frenetic Spanish culture. Pamplona felt a shock after weeks on the road: it’s narrow old streets oozing with life, it’s heartbeat pulsating strong. Crowds and tapas flowed fast around cobbled alleys famed for the running of bulls. Paco beat at the pace of Pamplona, his energy constantly buzzing. I longed for sleep, for restful recovery, but separation is hard when you’re enmeshed in a small team so instead I stayed with my companions, watching them consume incredible quantities of tapas and beer that my stomach churned at the prospect of.
Paco pedals a bike as fast as he lives, so following his backside up the road became a familiar view over the weeks. Riding the final kilometres in to the many spires of Santiago de Compostela, I reflected on the month gone by. Paco had taken control of everything, a benign, kind sort of dictator, and I had let go and gone with his flow. The journey had not been a consciously contemplative passage and I hadn’t been deliberately seeking any answers for life. The closest I had felt to a spiritual experience was incredulity at the size of Spanish gin and tonics, and watching the sun setting into the Atlantic surf. I hadn’t really thought about anything much, or been aware of seeking. However, through the following weeks, I noticed myself feeling and being very different. It seemed the Camino had taken me through a transformation. Maybe the most profound changes are those not thought about or ruminated. I could sense moving away from a known life with familiar ruts toward something new. There was total uncertainty in every single aspect of my life, but accompanied by a sense of excitement instead of fear.
How do we enable transformation?
We all have a natural tendency to want to grow, transform, and live life as fully as we can. Psychologists would argue we all have an internal drive to experience deeper fulfilment; ‘self-actualisation’ is the term often used. In busy lives in a busy world, how do we allow ourselves time and space to experience transformation? In my experience of daily life, my brain can’t often figure out the solutions for what or how to change. When patterns of thinking have become so engrained, I struggle to find ways to let go. The trying to figure things out and the experiencing of familiar ‘stuck’ emotions can become a vicious cycle.
When I think about riding across continents, the core ingredients that I have come to enjoy are: the arrival of new experiences, the disappearance of old habits of thinking and doing, the getting to know myself more, the inspiration of friends and strangers, and gaining other perspectives on the world.
If five weeks riding across a continent isn’t your thing, or you have life circumstances that mean you can’t just up and off (but check if that’s really the case or just an excuse), then maybe these core ingredients are a clue as to how to create transformation-supporting experiences in our ‘normal’ life.
We can start by changing small things in our every day. As the saying goes, ‘If we always do what we always did, we’ll always get what we always got’. Mixing things up always makes things interesting and takes us to new places even without physically travelling. Some ideas: start a new hobby; pick up an old one you used to love but for some reason left; learn a new skill or subject that gets you excited; change your social habits to meet new people; spend more time alone; connect with nature; give yourself space; get some coaching; read; meditate; make a growth mindset your way of being. Engage with activities that help peel away the layers and look for what lies beneath. As sages and yogis have done for centuries, ask yourself the question ‘Who am I?’, and then dare to venture into new territory that enables you to discover more of the answer.
The hardest part is the bit before the transformation. The part where we are stuck in a rut, paralysed by fear or negative emotion, no clue what to do, unable to figure things out in the logical ways we believe we should be able to. Our power comes in not fighting the fight, but being willing to let go. When we leave the solution-seeking, over-thinking habits behind and allow ourselves to enter a vacuum sort of space, then expansion naturally arrives. I find being in nature a particularly powerful enabler. Our energy starts flowing again, creativity is unexpectedly ignited and new paths unfold in a somewhat effortless way.
It also strikes me that these core ingredients I mention are quite prevalent for many of us in our Covid-19 lockdown world: so perhaps we all have an opportunity for transformation just now.
‘Joy’ is a word rarely used. Or a word regularly traded for ‘happy’. If you get picky about their meaning and definitions, joy describes something more soulful than happy. Happiness is more about the gratification that we feel from all the pleasure-giving activities we take part in, from meals out to parties, visits to events or theme parks, time with family or friends. Happiness tends to be externally triggered by other people, things, places, thoughts and events. Joy is a deeper more enduring feeling that comes when we make peace with who, why and how we are.
Behind the smiles of modern living I often read other emotions. I sense sadness or helplessness in people’s eyes; and fear, frustration or anger at what seems unfathomable or unjust. I see brave fronts or hardened exteriors. Rather than spew up all the confusion, fear or uncertainty that exists on the inside, it seems best to put the lid on and crack on with things. Some have got so good at pushing all the mush back down that they’re not even conscious it’s there anymore. Only the occasional fumarole seeps out; the frustration in the post office queue that made them grumpy with the lovely lady there, intolerance of the colleague at work who’s been annoying again, the nth visit back to the fridge to finish off the chocolate bar they swore they wouldn’t open…and then the guilt. “Why do I keep behaving like this?” we may ask ourselves, suffering the effects of our meta-emotions; the emotions about our emotions. Guilt about being angry. Frustration at self for over-indulging. The scars of unresolved experiences can bed in deep, affecting the way we feel and behave each day.
There is one place I’ve travelled where many people’s smiles felt genuinely real. Their eyes shone brighter. Their smiles seemed wider. They felt joyful, and yet it seems on the surface they have many reasons not to be.
A cycle adventure through the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia taught me something about joy and resilience
A collar of cold beer bottles is draped around my burning neck. A bucket of ice on my chest is a welcome thief, stealing heat from the fire that rages in me. I toss and sweat, images of the week flashing between bouts of fever: early morning starts, pedaling in moonlight to steal kilometres before the rise of the burning sun, men with Kalashnikovs trekking the road, cliffs rising into endless blue skies, the fuel of strong sweet coffee, the children…
They shout “Yu, Yu, Yu!!!” as they run and giggle alongside us, chasing faster as we pedal harder. Their excited eyes and toothy smiles exude energy. They look catalogue cool with their funky hairstyles: intricately dyed braids and zany patterns shaved into their hair. Shops and cities are far from the yawn of the giant landscape that surrounds us, and so I’m surprised by how cool the kids appear. They are bold and bright, not timid or worn. They look strong and healthy, not weak or starved. They do not want our pens or our food. They just want to run. They have attitude, perhaps born of the resilience that living in the high lands of Ethiopia demands.
We are riding the roof of Africa, through the Semien mountains. The distant sight of our bikes stirs the children and young teenagers to run. It seems like a genetically wired impulse. We watch their lithe frames sprint from the horizon towards us, diverting from their route to school or work in the fields. After only days of pedaling at altitude and in 47 celcius, we feel gnawed and scorched despite the luxuries of suncream. But they smile and run, run, run. They run beside us. They run with us. Asking for nothing. Wanting for nothing. Just laughing.
I am used to children that stand with their parents as I ride on by, point at my curious handbike and shout “I want one of those!” They show no sign of fun or laughter.
Her eyes look up at me, bigger and brighter than any so far. I offer her an orange, and some biscuits, our recovery food after many hot, steep kilometres of pedaling. She seems unsure if she should accept, shy with our one to one encounter. I see myself through her eyes. Perhaps a strange sight; fair skinned, blonde and in a wheelchair, riding a weird looking bike contraption through the midst of the mountains, her village, her home. She eats it. And I feel reluctant to say goodbye, but I am wilting. It is time for the comfort of our air conditioned van and to be whisked to a soft bed. I am sure she doesn’t have one, and that makes it harder to leave too.
The long days cycling through the parched, otherworldly volcanic terrain and its bacterial inhabitants has grounded me to bed and fever. Tossing in the damp sheets, I think of her eyes, and of the kids cheering: “Yu, Yu, Yu”. I see their smiles, their joyful faces, and I imagine them cheering me better, back to the road.
I could pontificate about resilience. About how life not being ‘easy’ shifts the focus from materialism and allows us to experience more of what matters. But I think this short story says it all. Wherever I have travelled in the world, those with less seem more joyful. Less seems more. In simplicity lies inner gold that we could spend a lifetime failing to find if pursuing some of the ‘western’ definitions of a successful life. Perhaps we have all discovered some of this within lockdown.
In the words of Bhutan’s Prime Minister, Jigme Y. Thinley, a country where Gross Domestic Happiness (I might argue Joy!) is more important than the financial marker of GDP. “…It is about how we, as a species, must live within the bounds of what nature can provide. Sustainable development is not a choice. It is an absolute necessity.” The good news is that it is not too late. Each and every person has the power to move toward greater well-being on all levels. You can make a difference in your own life and actually be the difference for someone else.
Maybe we can all make a difference by working to feel more ALIVE…and joyful (get ready for a potentially helpful or possibly annoying acronym I invented)…if we pay more attention to our ATTENTION and where we are putting it; to LOVE and INSPIRATION and how we give and receive them; to what we VALUE – what really matters to us; and on cultivating ELEVATED EMOTIONS like freedom, gratitude, love and joy.
More of this ALIVE stuff will hopefully turn us back into the child within, running excitedly through life and all its wonders like the kids in the Ethiopian mountains. Surely we can replace some of the happiness with joy.