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ICE

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

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Inner Gold : Possibility

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… 

Ten year old Rowan from the Isle of Skye climbed 79 peaks in 79 weeks! Be inspired by his story here https://youtu.be/EvVHQoXG7xw 

The Moray Scouts adventured by mountain bike and canoe across Scotland on The Great Glen Way. From Fort William to Inverness is 79 miles! See the young Scottish story here https://youtu.be/y0B7nR2MGBI 

Or maybe you could hike or cycle 79 miles or join a local cycle Sportive. Read here about my dad Mike Darke cycling 79 miles for 79 years https://www.cyclinguk.org/blog/karen-darke-my-fathers-day-tribute  or see this video about Inverness based, “never liked sport” Christine Graham doing her first Sportive event https://youtu.be/bxJFbXEBags 

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. 

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Inner Gold : Transformation

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.

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Inner Gold : Joy

‘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.

And so….

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.

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Inner Gold : Love

Ooof, this is a big topic to venture into! Love: a vital force, a component of every facet and corner of life, something we all desire but rarely give to ourselves… And so, I will begin with some reflections on self-love. 

We can be kind and compassionate to others in a way that we rarely are to ourselves. I have certainly specialised in ‘grit’ and for most of my life have thought of it as an ally that means I can set my sights high and achieve. Of course, this grit has led me to pushing on when I should have stepped back and is no doubt the major factor in why I fell from a cliff and became paralysed. It has also played a major part in my continual repetition of a pattern of struggle that has taken me to high moments and significant achievements, to accidents and points of breaking myself, and probably why I have a Paralympic gold medal and about half a dozen degrees too. I recognised the pattern from an early age, but it has taken me thirty years to tame the ‘grit’ and to teach myself how to practice better self-care. It will continue to be a lifetime work, but with awareness and practice, little by little and thanks to help from some wise people, the grit is definitely turning to a fine grade of sandpaper.

American business woman, mum and high achiever Nataly Kogan writes of a similar subject and says “Success-wise, grit is supposed to be a good thing. It helps us persevere to reach our goals. For me, grit came at an early age, and it almost killed me.” * Driving many of us, particularly people pushing hard in sport or work, is an underlying sense of not being enough. No matter whether we attribute it to our childhood, a life event, our ancestry or genetics, and regardless that it may help us achieve some impressive things; the fact remains that anyone with this feeling of being ‘never good enough’ will likely experience an almost constant struggle. 

If we are pushing too hard all the time to fill a hole in our soul of not being enough, then we will most likely reach breaking point in some shape or form: accident, injury, burnout, illness, or a general falling apart of our life until we get that actually, we are okay, and we learn to be kinder to ourselves. 

But I don’t want all of the great stuff and the achievements to end” I have heard my inner voice object, thinking that no pushing means laziness and no success. Beneath the voice in me that is ‘scared’ to back off in case it means losing out on life somehow there is a wiser voice. A knowing that with commitment, consistency, self-care and acceptance, that hard work will still happen and that this is a far better recipe for success. We do not need the grit or the self-abuse to succeed. My current ‘experiment’ is to adopt the strategy of high self-care. When each cell in our body is flourishing instead of being tortured I am convinced we can be better than ever at whatever we do, and really enjoy the journey a lot too. I’m trading in the pressure and struggle for better health and more peace. 

I’d like to share a powerful adventure that taught me about love…

In the autumn of 2018 as part of the Quest 79 series of rides, myself and two close friends travelled to the village of Gangotri high in the Himalaya of northern India. Our plan was to cycle from the source of the River Ganges and follow the river downstream to its sacred heart in the ancient city of two-thousand temples, Varanasi. 

The nights are chilly when you’re at altitude, and at about four thousand metres high, deep gasps for air are frequent. At the end of our first day in Gangotri, recovering from days of travel by air and jeep, I collapsed into bed exhausted and very cold. I didn’t have the energy for another game of twister navigating around the mountain village, as un-wheelchair friendly as you can imagine, so I decided to rest up while Christine and Kevin went for an evening stroll down to the banks of the river. I buried myself deep into my sleeping bag in search of warmth and recovery. I was just drifting toward sleep when they burst into the room and Christine excitedly pulled the layers of duvet from my face. “Kevin just proposed!” she gleefully announced “on the banks of the Ganga! But it’s to be a secret. No-one is to know until we get back to Scotland!” I was so excited for them, and as I lay in the darkness later, I thought how special it was that this was no whim or impromptu thing. They had been together for ten years, and they were apparently more in love than ever. 

And so, the sealing of their love became the ‘secret’ of our journey with the river, and it seemed to set the tone for an incredibly special month. Everyone we met effused love to us. We were cycling through a remote, non-touristy part of northern India, and the people welcomed us with open arms. Our hearts were touched by each and every one of the people we briefly came to know. This is partly thanks to the experience of travelling by bicycle in any country as the barriers of glass and class are somehow deleted and it feels easier to connect with people. It was extra noticeable in India though as the bicycle is the major means of travel. The further downstream we rode the more we were swept into a torrent of bicycles, mopeds and rickshaws.  Our days were not typical of cycle touring. There were none of the long lonely days in the saddle. Each day brought a full-on, continual pedal party. We had gangs of schoolchildren riding with us, whole families on mopeds chugging along beside us, and if we were to stop even for a brief bottle of water we were immediately surrounded by people with their curious and kind smiles. We were offered help, water, biscuits, a place to shade and usually a billion selfies. 

We were riding through a land with different values to our own: a land reigned by connection, community, care, curiosity and love. In remote villages, women and children would often come into our rooms and sit with us, interested. They didn’t want anything from us. They just wanted to be with us. For no fathomable reason, we felt the same. It was unusual and special just to sit in the presence of other people, without words, speaking with our eyes. 

At the end of our ride, we celebrated with a traditional wedding ceremony on the river in Varanasi, all thanks to the help of friends we made along the way. We watched bodies burn on the ghats as we drifted to a setting sun, peaceful on the holy waters of the river that had led us through a vibrant voyage of love. The ride with the Ganges – I called it ‘The Sacred Way’ – was unexpected in every wonderful way possible. It was a journey with heart in every revolution of our pedals.

It was like no other journey I have taken. It was an adventure through extreme external conditions of heat, humidity, pollution, traffic, poverty, busy-ness and intensity, but somehow free of any struggle. It seemed to me like everything should feel hard but instead it felt the opposite. 

The law of opposites

All situations exist because opposing forces balance each other. There are many complementary opposites out in the world that balance quite nicely together such as day and night, right and left, male and female. Duality has characterized all ancient medicines and martial arts: yin and yang, inhale and exhale, defense and attack, slow and fast, war and peace, and the list goes on. The opposite of love is often thought of as hate, but truly it is lack of care, or indifference. As we’ve lost more traditional ways of living and individualism and materialism has come to reign in many parts of the world, it feels like there has been a gradual loss of remembering to be compassionate, to ourselves as much as to others. 

Love yourself and those around you more

Our journey down the Ganges was so hot, sweaty and intense that without caring well for ourselves and each other we would never have managed, let alone enjoyed it. We quickly established a routine to give ourselves the best chance of being our best. We slept early, rose early and began riding by dawn to be finished by midday before the stifling heat and fumes began. We planned our food and water in advance so we’d never be short, and stopped routinely to keep our bodies fuelled and to take in more liquid than we were losing in sweat. In the afternoons, we hid in a fan-cooled hostel or hotel room to find peace and recovery time, ate curry and laughed a lot. The old me judged and thought ‘we should we be riding all day, we have a long way to go’but the new me thought ‘we’ve done enough today so rest and enjoy this experience of India’. Letting go of a ‘should do’ mindset creates more space for ‘could do’, and that brings back a sense of choice and freedom. It allows a lot more fun and enjoyment. 

It’s easy to be way too hard on ourselves. It’s something I’ve noticed a lot in the world of sport and business, where coaches and leaders shout ‘encouragement’ to chase targets, push harder and go faster. When a coach or leader isn’t shouting, people shout at themselves about not going hard enough or fast enough. No wonder so many people fight a feeling of not being ‘good enough’. What about choosing to believe that we are each doing our best in the circumstances that we have, and that is definitely good enough. The possibility exists that we will enjoy stuff more instead of making things a struggle.

My lifetime journey is to be kinder to myself and others. I seek a better way to continue to strive and create and do surprising things, but with more balance, self-care and love.  If I’d been better at more compassion sooner in life, I would no doubt have led a very different life, certainly one with less struggle. Here are some of my thoughts on ways to love yourself and those around you a little harder.

  • Appreciate yourself as you are, and that means accepting your weaknesses: you don’t need to explain away any shortcomings. We all have our unique skills and strengths. 
  • Have compassion for yourself and take care of yourself like you would your best friend, a loved child or family member. Take time for self-care practices that you know help you be your best self. When we are filled up in this way, then we can show up to love others from a place of fullness and presence rather than from a place of lack that is within you. 
  • Drop the use of ‘should do’ and try replacing it with ‘could do’. This simple shift of language helps release pressure and creates more possibility and freedom to choose what you need.  
  • Make friends with any foe or struggle in your external environment. Know that the world, the weather, that ‘person’ is not really against you. When you drop the war inside you, the enemy disappears. 
  • Have compassion for others. Everyone is doing their best from their level of consciousness.

References

 
* Nataly Kogan on ‘grit’ https://www.happier.com/blog/i-thought-grit-would-make-me-successful-it-almost-cost-me-everything/

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Inner Gold 5 : Gratitude

Gratitude is a word that has seeped into everyday language more and more in recent years. It seems that we are waking up to the realization that feeling grateful is a powerful ingredient to transforming our mental wellbeing and our positive experience of life. 

Gratitude journaling and meditations are becoming common practice for some. I believe 2020 will be a big experience in gratitude for all of us. Even though ‘lockdown’ or a deadly virus are not things any of us would choose to experience, there is the potential for us to learn a lot through the process. Can you imagine how much we will appreciate things that we always took for granted after so long without: to walk, run or play outside, to hug our loved ones, to smile at each other face to face or to visit a favourite place again?  Even in lockdown, I am feeling appreciative of certain things like the permission to slow down, the lack of rush, the time for good sleep, the sounds of nature and birdsong that seems louder than before, or just not drowned out by engines and the noise of busy-ness.


Feeling grateful is something that has helped me shift many times, from a state of stress, worry or general lack of ease, to a healthier, happier state.

My greatest personal journey with gratitude…

In 2018 I was the very fortunate winner of the BBC / Royal Geographical Society ‘Journey of a Lifetime’ award, where I cycled the length of The Murray River, a vulnerable Australian river eco-system. I had felt burned out after ten years of almost continuous high-level training for Paralympic handcycling. I had taken my seemingly endless energy for granted, until it was gone. I never sought a medical diagnosis for my feeling of exhaustion and lack lustre, but I felt to be dragging myself through life instead of dancing. I never used the label ‘depressed’, but I had definitely lost my energy and sparkle for life. 

I first came across the story of the Murray River when a friend told me of an Australian woman who had swum its 2000 mile length! The more I learned about the river, the more I was attracted to explore its fascinating story. The river flows from the Snowy Mountains of Australia, into a dry, drought-stricken landscape. Hungry crops like cotton and vines are grown, which seems crazy given it is so dry. Water is diverted from other rivers, and communities and ecosystems are slowly drying up. Environmentalists fight for the balance and health of the river and its catchment area. Algal blooms replace pools once rich in fish. Dams and weirs have messed with the natural flow of water, causing un-seasonally dry riverbeds and intermittent floods. In the Murray River region, water is a commodity that costs more than the wine it is used to produce! The story is not unique, and there are many parts of the world where entire lakes and river systems are drying up due to the demands of population, irrigation and poor water management.

As a Paralympic athlete, I also mis-managed my resources. I took my energy for granted, and assumed my body would keep on giving because it always had. In the process I pushed through when sometimes I was exhausted and kept squeezing myself for more and more. Instead of listening to what my body needed, I over-rode it and forced it to respond to my demands. I wanted to learn from the river and it’s people about ways to manage limited resources more sustainably. Is it possible to maintain flow and still flourish whilst the ‘ecosystem’ – our body or the landscape – remains healthy? You can listen here to the programme ‘From Source to Sea via Me’ here https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0000pdb  

On the final day of my journey with the Murray River, I rode to the end of a narrow track that led toward the mouth of the river. It seemed the most beautiful day ever, perhaps because I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude. I felt alive again, I had energy, I was grateful for my shoulders and arms that had pedaled me the length of the river, for the incredible kindness we had received along the way, for the opportunity to be creative and make a radio programme, for friendship, for my experiences as an athlete, for my life, for just about everything! You get the idea – I experienced a power-shower of gratitude. Inside I felt very peaceful.

Gratitude helps you be your best

Feeling grateful is well established as one of the foundations of sustainable happiness. Neuroscience has shown that if we regularly pay attention to things we are grateful for, then levels of our ‘happiness’ hormones become elevated. 

Gratitude is a great natural anti-depressant as it stimulates release of dopamine and serotonin, two crucial neurotransmitters responsible for enhancing our mood.* 

If we can consciously practice gratitude, we help strengthen these neural pathways in our brain and can create a more permanent state of gratefulness and positivity. I use the word SMILE as an acronym for ideal moments to feel gratitude and raise those levels of happy hormones.

Sleep gratitude

Movement gratitude

Inspiration gratitude

Landscape gratitude

Exchange gratitude

Sleep gratitude

I’ve engrained a habit so that every night when my head hits the pillow, I call to my mind at least three things I am feeling grateful for that day. No matter what happened in your day, there are always things to be grateful for. This pre-sleep stage is an ideal time to lock new connections into your subconscious mind. The extra bonus is that happy, appreciative, blissful thoughts just before sleep usually lead to good quality rest.

Movement gratitude

When you are doing some exercise, it is a great time to feel grateful for the incredible work that your body enables. I often say ‘thanks’ to my shoulders in appreciation of what I ask of them and what they enable me to do. When they grumble or don’t cooperate with my demands as much as I might like, I remember to listen, take care of them and feel thankful for all that they do. It’s surprising with even the smallest injury or pulled muscle how it can impact our ability to do things. Rather than feel frustrated at the part of me that isn’t ‘working’, I try to give it a bit of love, appreciate it, and marvel at what it normally does for me.

Inspiration gratitude

Do you ever get those good, spine-tingling feelings when you witness or experience something special like a performance, a piece of music, or a unique shared moment? It’s as if your body is being filled with inspiration. There are other less ‘tingly’ moments that inspire us too. Look out for them and turn up your grateful feelings.  I think of inspiration as being essential to us, like fuel is for a car. Inspiration gives us energy to keep going through the terrain of life.

Landscape gratitude

Nature is a powerful healer, and also a great provider of resources to feel grateful for. Whether it’s enjoying and appreciating a spectacular sunrise or sunset or listening to the bubble of a stream or the breaking of waves, there are many things to appreciate in the landscapes that surround us. Even in dense urban areas you can appreciate a cityscape or sky-scape. Look up and notice the clouds or the stars, and feel grateful for the rhythms and seasons of the landscapes around you. Take time to leave your desk or indoor space, step outside even if for five or ten minutes, connect with the landscape and appreciate it. 

Exchange gratitude

Using the word ‘exchange’ I refer to acts of kindness: that exchange of energy between two people. Although it sounds easy to appreciate someone’s kindness, we can take many things for granted especially when it is given by someone close to us that we can almost ‘expect’ it from. Try turning up the volume button on your appreciation when someone is kind, and seek a little harder than usual to be kind to others. Being kind helps us as much as those on the receiving end. Studies have proven that our ‘happy’ hormone levels elevate, and our immune response is up to 50% greater when we empathise more with others. If you’re interested, explore the work by Dr David Hamilton and try his TedX lecture** on the benefits of compassion and kindness. 

Make gratitude a practice

As Einstein said “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results”. So if you want to feel more freedom and happiness, why not try starting, or turning up the volume on feeling grateful each day. In my own experience, the benefits to physiology and mental wellness come quickly.

References

* Positive Psychology, The Neuroscience of Gratitude and How It Affects Anxiety and Grief, https://positivepsychology.com/neuroscience-of-gratitude/

** Why Kindness is Good for You: Dr David Hamilton at TEDxHackney . https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WyX-kTTzM00

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Inner Gold 4 : Freedom


Freedom is a word more pertinent now than perhaps ever in our lifetimes. With the lockdown that Covid-19 has brought to the world, most of us have either limited or no freedom to enjoy being outside. We notice the absence of things we all too often take for granted, as well as appreciating some things that we don’t normally have time to notice. 

We all have different ideas of what freedom means…

I am often asked why I participate in long cycle rides or other adventures. Many people assume I am an exercise addict or adrenaline junkie. The real truth is that I love the freedom and feelings that cycling brings: the movement, my blood pumping, to feel healthy, the wind in my hair, the simplicity, the sensations of nature and connection to something far bigger than myself. When I am out exploring with just my bike, a tent and a few friends, there is total freedom to flow with the rhythm of nature, to rise and rest with its beats, and to roll with the uncertainty about where and when the next meal or rest will come. 

We often appreciate things more when we have experienced loss. Following the accident that left me paralysed from the chest down, I spent three months in a hospital bed in traction. I had a metal halo drilled into my skull and weights hanging from it to keep my spine aligned. My only view was of black metal bars that framed my field of vision and dull ceiling tiles above. Whilst I obviously didn’t feel free physically at that time, my journey with paralysis has enabled me to realise that feeling free does not necessarily require the physical ability to go to all of the places that we think we need to. Freedom is very much an internal state.

As part of the Life Cycleseries with BBC Radio Scotland, Lee Craigie interviewed inmates at a women’s prison in Stirling, Scotland. Most of us would think that prison removes freedom. However, many of the women Lee interviewed expressed the opposite. Being removed from their daily lives and the responsibilities and pressures that went with those, they were experiencing liberation. They had time to themselves, to get fit, to learn new skills and were experiencing a new found freedom.

The opposite of freedom might be seen as limitation…

In the autumn of 2017, my Quest 79 ride ‘Express Way’ ride (www.karendarke.com/quest79) took me from Canada to Mexico, down the Pacific Coastal Trail.  Cycling through America involved long days on the road for week after week and I found myself contemplating freedom. In the early stages of the journey, it became clear that one of my companions had an alcohol addiction. He drank cider and spirits from breakfast until sleep. Somehow he still managed to ride and balance a bike with heavy panniers, and bring us wake-up porridge and hot drinks early every morning. Even when he got so drunk that he disappeared, he always re-appeared intact and ready to ride. Whilst not free of his addiction, he was in his element on this journey. He had purpose, daily motivation, companions and an adventure. It seems like the journey gave him for a while some freedom from his inner struggles.

Located at the end of the Pacific Coastal Trail is Friendship Park, a patch of dirt between double fences that extend out into the Pacific Ocean. It was the end of our long cycle. Military guards patrol the fences that separate Mexico from America, the ‘land of the free’. Immersed in the shadows of the fences, head bowed, a young Mexican stood silent, a loved one on the other side of the dense trellis. Perhaps poverty and the search for a better life had led them to be separated and I wondered about the trade-off that had created. What would greater freedom mean to them? 

At the other extreme from poverty, millionaires and educated professionals turn to minimalism. They describe leaving a life of material luxury for simplicity. They have realised that the weight of belongings and the focus on working for material gain has robbed them of their freedom, and often their health and happiness. 

It begs the question, what is freedom?! 

Perhaps true freedom is breaking away from the routine, habits, addictions or beliefs that have the ability to hold us captive. 

I was intrigued to discover a study into participation in extreme sports* which revealed that motivations are not at all about risk taking and adrenaline. It showed that participation in extreme sports is about exploration of freedom to satisfy fundamental human values: freedom from constraints, from the need for control, from feeling separation, for the transformation of fear, for positive health benefits, and freedom as choice and responsibility.

It is not surprising that studies archived by the World Database of Happiness https://worlddatabaseofhappiness.eur.nlshow a link between freedom and happiness. So if freedom is a route to happiness, and happiness is a route to being our best selves, it seems worthwhile considering how we personally find freedom. Doing this will help and encourage those that we love or lead to find more freedom for themselves too. Here are some ways that I have found useful.   

Appreciate what is present, what is now…

When I’m on an adventure my mind is often thinking ahead to where we might sleep or where to find more water. Or my thoughts may wander to the previous day and something that I said or did. Then I’ll suddenly arrive where I am and am able to see the incredible mountain before me, or the beauty of the forest and wildflowers I am passing by. Thinking forward or backward takes us away from the present moment. It takes awareness and work to stay present, but there is often so much beauty in the ‘now’ that its worth working at being there. Notice and catch where your thoughts lie, and always try to bring them back to where you are and who you are with. The book by Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now, has become famous for these very reasons and as a path to personal and spiritual growth.


Find flow…

Engage in activities that take you into a ‘zone’: that is any activity that you become so immersed in that nothing else seems to matter. You are so involved in the task that time is distorted or transformed and you are unaware of how little or long may have passed. Flow activities tend to be either physical or creative  – for example I have found flow doing things like climbing, dancing, cycling, writing, meditating or a work task that I get totally immersed in. 

Break a habit or addiction…

Most of us have experienced some kind of unhealthy habit or addiction. It could be habits of language that are the product of underlying beliefs, for example “I just can’t do that” or it may be a difficulty with ever saying “no”. It might by any form of food, drink or drug that you struggle to stay away from even though you know its bad. Or perhaps you are addicted to something that on the surface may seem healthy or justifiable like work or exercise or a person. A great way to experience more freedom is to find the motivation and willpower to overcome ourselves, and break a habit that has been controlling us in an unhelpful way. When we can master the habits or additions of our body or our thoughts, we are claiming back some freedom from the chains of lower, negative emotions like guilt, shame and frustration, and allowing space for higher, more empowering feelings. 

Value your freedom 

As we have all learned in 2020, we never know when the freedom we are accustomed to will be no more. Spare moments each day to feel grateful for the freedoms that you enjoy, and radiate that appreciation out into the world. Let go of any fear about the future and focus on what you have and appreciate that now. And know that if any of the ways that you find freedom today should become unavailable in the future, that you will discover something new. The trails through the forest of inner freedom are endless. 

References

*Brymer, E. & Schweitzer, R.D. (2013). The Search for Freedom in Extreme Sports: A Phenomenological Exploration. Psychology of Sport and Exercise 14(6):865-873

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Inner Gold 3 : Vulnerability & Superpowers

In the last blog I looked at how you can change your beliefs to help you. That’s all well and good, but if you’re a regular human like me, then no matter how much you pay attention to your stories, language and words, there are times when you just get into a ‘dip’ that feels hard to shake. A general feeling of anxiety, fear, weakness, of not being good enough, or of not having the capability, washes over like a wave rather then any single identifiable ripple of a thought. This is you at your most vulnerable.

From this vulnerable place it’s often hard to be positive, or proactive, or to use good habits we may normally use to train our brains. However, this place of vulnerability is a perfect time to learn and to adapt or adopt some things to help us develop resilience and come back stronger than before. Here a few simple strategies that may help… 

(1) Watch the storm pass through…

Over the years, many people have asked me how long it took for me to recover from the mental and emotional shock of becoming paralysed. I have no clear answer to that, as it was a grieving process and therefore hard to define an end point. However, my ‘aha’ moment in the process was the day that I learned to observerather than bemy emotions. Instead of getting all wrapped up in the drama of what I was feeling, or re-playing stories or ideas about why, I started to just notice the feelings and emotions I was experiencing. Like watching the spectacle of a storm from a warm, dry place, I observed the bad weather roll in and out, knowing that it would pass and the sun would return. 

Whenever I have a hard time now, I remind myself to watch the storm, and know that it will pass. Amongst the clouds and in the vortex of negative emotions, we can choose not to wallow and fall into helplessness, but instead to accept where we are, and give ourselves some time and patience to positively affect change. 

(2) Seek other ways to induce a change…

Instead of feeling victim, I seek ways to change. But how? Earlier in the series I mentioned noticing your stories, thoughts and words so that you can change them to more positive versions: doing this changes the chemicals and hormones released into our body, thus improving our feelings and emotions. However, there are some practical physical things we can do to help shift our state and take us from vulnerability quicker than we might otherwise. These are an accumulation of my own experiences, and ideas of Paul Chek*, a leader in personal success and of Dr Chaterjee’s four pillars of wellbeing**.

  •  ‘Dr Quiet’: Perhaps you have overdone things in some way, or your body is in a state of stress. Managing our energy is important so that our body can repair. If this is the case, seek to say no to things, take time out, and create ways to get more relaxation and self-time.
  • ‘Dr Diet’: You may have been eating badly, not enough, or too much! Food and drink dramatically affect our energy levels and biochemical reality, which in turn affects how we feel. This can tip us to a more vulnerable place. No matter what, a healthy, wholesome, moderate diet in quantities that are right for you, along with drinking plenty of water can help make us feel a whole lot better, faster. 
  • ‘Dr Movement’: Do something different with your body: If you feel lethargic or heavy for no good reason i.e. you haven’t excessively exercised or had another form of significant stress in the last short while, then movement can really help get nutrients around the body, enhance life-force and shift your state. Take some exercise that suits you: walk, run, cycle, do some breathing exercises (try the Wim Hof*** method, yoga or other breathing techniques), lift a few weights, do some stretching, put on some music and dance… It is surprising how fast the shift in energy can make you can feel better.
  • ‘Dr Happiness’: On a deeper level, maybe its time to check in with whether there are any facets of our life that feel like a burden, or doesn’t fit with our core values. If core aspects of our life misfit with what makes us truly happy, then we are likely to be experiencing fight or flight stress symptoms. It could be time to change something. 
  • ‘Dr Connection’: Feeling part of community and supporting each other through the highs and lows of life is a vital thread of life. Always when things have been toughest for me, the support of other lovely humans has enabled me to see light again. Even if you like your own space and peace a lot, few of us really thrive without giving and receiving love in at least some of its many forms.  
  • ‘Dr Meaning’: If we start each day without meaning and purpose, it can be hard to find motivation to get out of bed. Having purpose, goals and contributing to other people or society are the essence of our life-force. I always try to seek meaning, no matter how small or insignificant things may sometimes feel. Meaning and purpose is the fire that fuels our life.

Remember The Power of Vulnerability…

Whilst it’s never nice to fall from feeling invincible to feeling weak and bleak, our greatest learning and gifts often emerge from this state of vulnerability.  I was recently talking to a group of young scouts who had biked and kayaked 79 miles through the Great Glen of Scotland (Fort William to Inverness). I asked two of the teenage girls ‘What was the worst bit?’ and they immediately replied “The giant hill! It was so steep we couldn’t ride up it, and we were so tired we thought we were never going to make it. It was horrible.” When I asked them what the best part was, they looked at each other, paused for a moment, then burst out laughing. “The hill!” they said “It was the best part too! We didn’t think we could do it, but then we discovered we could. We were stronger than we thought.” That little story sums it up. Through the tough stuff, we learn about the grit, the potential and the strengths that we have inside us. We develop resilience, which can serve us well in many other areas and stages of life. 

Whilst experiencing vulnerability may not feel nice at the time, it can help us develop ‘superpowers’. You may be familiar with the TedX talk by Brené Brown**** on shame and vulnerability. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend taking the time to watch it. She sums it up well when she says “I have a vulnerability issue, and I know that vulnerability is kind of the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness. But it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, creativity, of belonging, love …”

Ask for help if you need it…
I felt burnt out following my drive to win gold in the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games, and my shoulder was so injured I was struggling with daily tasks. I could barely move around in my wheelchair. Despite these challenges, the friends with whom I had planned a trip to cycle through the wilderness of Patagonia were still keen that we go together. I was grateful for their encouragement, but I felt very wary to put myself into a challenging situation with the condition of my shoulder. I had a date booked for shoulder surgery, and was on the brink of cancelling my part in the adventure to South America.

However, I have a belief in the healing power of nature, and somehow felt I should give my best effort to make the trip, remembering a favourite motto ‘If we haven’t failed we haven’t tried hard enough’. We were a diverse team of friends: Steve in the process of losing his eyesight, Jaco with a carbon prosthetic having lost an arm in Afgahanistan, and Caroline with no previous experience of cycle touring. They were towing bike trailers full of kit and my wheelchair. I had tried hard to find a handbike suitable for the off-road terrain as well as asphalt, but the solution was poor and my front wheel span on the gravel any time the gradient was more than just a few percent. Whilst I pedalled as hard as I could, my friends did a relay push up every gravel hill the length of Patagonia: an astounding feat. There were so few accessible places to camp that to find grass or a flat area, they often had to post me through the slats in wooden gates. I felt like the weakest link but it led to incredible teamwork and brought out the best in us – strength, determination, a solution-focus, creativity, resilience and an absolute never-give-up attitude. We embraced our vulnerabilities together and somehow managed to complete our month-long wilderness journey. I could never have done it without them, and it felt like the demanding environment had brought out our superpowers. At the end, my shoulder was healed, and I cancelled the surgery.

We can aspire to be strong and self-reliant enough to weather the storm on our own, but part of being vulnerable is having the courage to tell someone how we feel, or to ask a friend or stranger for help or support. Having a support network is vital, and it really helps you navigate vulnerabilities and be your best. 

Value your vulnerability 

You have a choice, to let your vulnerability take you down, or to seek solutions to overcome it and get back in the saddle of life. Just like there is blue sky above every blanket of cloud, there is learning and light to be found on the other side of the dark days of life. Rather than becoming immersed in your negative emotions and projecting them into the future, I recommend noticing and acknowledging how you feel and then to adopt a mindset of finding the learning and gifts in your vulnerability. Use the experience to help you discover your points of strength…your superpowers…and to emerge on the other side, stronger than before.

References

* Four Doctors by Paul Chek http://www.ppssuccess.com/Portals/0/docs/Last4DoctorsChapter.pdf

** Dr Chaterjee’s four pillars of wellbeing
https://drchatterjee.com/book/

*** Wim Hof breathing technique video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nzCaZQqAs9I

**** Brene Brown TedX talk on vulnerability https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability?language=en

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Inner Gold 2 : WIBA’s & Beliefs

There are times in life when we face a goal or a challenge that seems daunting. Like the world right now with Covid-19. It may feel beyond our capabilities in its magnitude or difficulty for us to manage. Whilst it may not seem like it at the time, a challenge, whether we choose it or whether it ‘appears’ in our lives, brings us huge opportunity to learn and change. It pushes us out of comfort zones, stretches our abilities, helps us develop resilience physically, mentally and emotionally, and gives us a focus to challenge our energy towards. 

In any situation, I find it helpful to frame the challenge in a positive way, by defining more clearly what is my ‘WIBA’. This stands for ‘Wouldn’t It Be Amazing’. For example, on becoming paralysed my first WIBA was “Wouldn’t it be amazing to see the sky again” after spending three months in a hospital bed. My WIBA during Covid-19 lockdown is “Wouldn’t it be amazing if this totally changes how I / we behave and interact with our planet.”Creating a positive WIBA can generate incredible focus, momentum, action and learning, and given it’s something you are inspired toward, motivation will rarely be lacking.

A sports psychologist once asked me what percentage of achievement I might assign to mental attitude versus physical form. “80% physical, 20% mental” I mused, pondering the correct answer. Apparently, Ranulph Fiennes attributes his success in climbing Mount Everest at age 65 to being 90% positive mental attitude and 10% physical ability. There is, of course, no right answer – it must be different for each of us and will vary from day to day. There is no doubt, though, that if we go into any situation thinking we’re going to fail, we probably will do just that. Maintaining a positive mental attitude at all times is a vital ingredient of success. As Henry Ford is famed for saying “If you think you can, or if you think you can’t, you’re right.”

When pursuing a WIBA we come up against all manner of hurdles. These are an opportunity to dig deeper and examine the beliefs we hold that are perhaps limiting us. Our beliefs are based on our past experiences, and contribute to our perception of the world, and a different set of beliefs could really change that. To enhance your abilities and possibilities, it is useful to check out what beliefs you might want to change. WIBA’s also bring opportunities to examine the skills and systems that we have in our personal or working lives, and an opportunity to upgrade, add or change those. 

Here are a few approaches that have helped me change unhelpful beliefs…

(1) Check out your stories…

I was never a confident cyclist. In fact, when I decided to try and become a Paralympic handcyclist, I had only ever done two races, and come last in both of them. The story I told myself back then was “I just cycle for fun and I’m good at riding slow for a long time”. In my first year of training for the London 2012 Paralympics, that was the story I told myself.  I rode more than ever, thought I was training hard, and was certainly investing a lot of time…but a year later, I was no faster, and still coming last in races!

I had a story running in my head that went something like “I’m not an athlete”, and I decided to work on changing that belief. I tried a more positive belief out: “If I train hard, maybe I can become good enough to get to a Paralympic Games”. It worked out, and I made it to London, and to my shock, won a silver medal. For the next four years, I worked on changing a belief of “I never win” to “I can win”. I didn’t suddenly burst with confidence, but by changing my story surprising things happened. In 2016 I won the gold medal in the Rio Paralympic Games. Where we put our thoughts and attention, our energy goes. The simple act of changing a collection of thoughts can change our beliefs and hence our life.  

The stories we tell ourselves are just narratives we have invented. It is important to notice what our stories are, because they can hold us in place and keep us stuck. They are just programs we are running about ourselves that are often unhelpful, and we can work on replacing the underlying beliefs with new ones. Just like you can change a scary movie to a comedy, we can change the movie we are playing inside our own head. With the emergence Covid-19, it is an ideal time to check out our beliefs. What has driven our past behaviour and how can we potentially change?

(2) Check out your thoughts and words…

The stories we tell ourselves are a collection of words. Their power is immense, but what might surprise you more is the power that even one word can have on changing your reality.

About two or three times a week, I have a really intense training session. I used to call it my ‘killer’ session. Now imagine waking up in a morning with the prospect of something killing you. Just that one word is enough to destroy our motivation. I used to delay my training for hours, postponing the inevitable.  A friend suggested that I call them my ‘gold’ sessions instead of ‘killer’…and the result was surprising! I suddenly felt ready to engage with the hard work, knowing it was only the intense sessions that would ever get me fitter and improve my chances of making Paralympic dreams a reality.

(3) The power of negative thinking…

There is a book about confidence by Dr. Rob Yeung, and I’d like to share one of his ideas before explaining what I mean by the power of negative thinking. He refers to ANTs: Automatic Negative Thoughts. If our head is full of negative thoughts, this affects how we feel, which in turn affects how we behave, which then affects who and what we attract in our life. If we’re allowing our doubts to run riot, this cycle often leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy of a negative outcome.

The opposite are CATs – Capability Affirming Thoughts.You may have heard people call them positive affirmations or helpful self-talk. CATs help you think constructively, encourage your confidence and lead towards a more successful outcome. 

Whilst I support a positive mental attitude, it can also be very helpful to embrace our negative thoughts.  In facing challenges I often have more ANTs than CATs. Rather than dismissing the ANT’s, I find it useful to pay attention to them. I list them all. Then I think about how to turn each ANT around. I ask What can I do to alleviate that concern, doubt, or insecurity…?That way the ANTs seem to become an extremely helpful way of mitigating risk and helping to counter problems before they arise. 

For example, when we were preparing to ski across the Greenland icecap, I had plenty of ANT’s. Being paraplegic, many of these related to the management of my personal care such as, How can I prevent frostbite? How am I going to go to the toilet without getting a frostbitten bottom?Collectively these ANTs could have stopped me from attempting the month-long unsupported journey. But the solutions that arose kept me safer than ever: such as monitoring the temperature of my feet and legs with a fish-tank thermometer as it has multiple gauges, and to the invention of the worlds first ever carbon-fibre, titanium-legged potty with snow-feet. 

To address any current challenges, try making a list of any ANTs (Automatic Negative Thoughts, or words) you have. What is one thing you can do about each of your ANTs to help you gain confidence to progress forwards? Also, list the CATs (Capability Affirming Thoughts, or words) to remind yourself of the skills and positivity you have. Try paying attention to the words you are using, and whether they are helping or hindering you.

(4) Check out your resistance…

Succeeding with a challenge or a goal inevitably means some hard work, and that very likely means you will find some resistance. You may avoid practical things. Are you finding it easier to watch the news or Netflix in lockdown instead of getting immersed in that task you’ve been putting of?Or you may have questions popping up like What if I can’t do this? You might allow yourself to being scared off by these thoughts, or thrown off course by your avoidance, BUT this resistance is actually great. Weightlifters are wasting their time if the weights they lift cause no resistance. Just like you only grow muscle fibres and get stronger when there is resistance in a gym, the same applies to anything. When we feel resistance, your first urge may be to give up, but in the resistance lies the chance for growth. Just like molecules need a minimum amount of energy – activation energy – to undergo transformation, so do we. The only way you’ll get your rocket out into orbit is if you bust through that resistance. So, next time you feel it, embrace it, because it offers you a path to change and empowering surprises.

Nobody said it was easy!

So of course, it might be nice if we could achieve all of this belief and change by reading a short article. However, you’ll have to decide how much you want to accomplish your challenge or the change you seek, and how much you’re willing to commit to getting from your current scenario towards your WIBA. We are reminded of in the spread of Covid-19 that progress is exponential: it’s often slow to see impact at first, but things soon compound and big shifts can happen relatively quickly.  It’s our choice: give up on early, or commit to change? 

So practice noticing your stories and changing the underlying beliefs to positive ones; change your words and thoughts to more helpful ones, use your negative thinking to help you be better prepared, and embrace the resistance. Surprising things will unfold!

Thanks for listening or reading this second article. Over the coming weeks I will share one a week, each with a theme that I hope will be useful for you. Each theme has been a gift that I have learned from each of the Quest 79 journeys, so if you stay tuned, I will be taking you on a virtual travel experience, exploring both ‘outside’ and ‘inside’. Next week the topic is vulnerability, something I learned about during the ‘Wild Way’, a journey along the Carretera Austral through the wilderness of Patagonia. 

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Inner Gold 1: To Be An Explorer…

Before the reality of Covid-19 had hit, I wrote a blog about exploration. I never got around to posting it, but now it seems more pertinent than ever. Here I share an updated version.

Navigating the rollercoaster of daily life has distracted me of late: bladder surgery to remove two large stones after a stint of infections; re-arranging my diary as work plans are gradually being cancelled due to Covid-19; trying to stay focused on training with the doubtful possibility that the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics may still go ahead: the ‘stuff’ of life. 

It is this stuff that de-rails us as all too often from peace and space, as we try our best to be our best and keep up with our over-busy, ever-faster world. 

When not de-railed, I find peace in exploring: outside and in, to adventure toward ‘boundaries’; after-all where on earth do they lie? We know but a fraction of how the universe works; how we as humans interact with this vast unknown; the workings, abilities and potential of our own minds, bodies and spirits. 

I sometimes describe myself as an ‘Explorer’. It’s a word that conjures images of someone venturing into unknown territory, perhaps by sail, foot or skis: someone discovering new lands. ‘Explorer’ is a job that never showed up in our schools career service list of suggested jobs. I matched with ‘Fireman’ or ‘Photographer’. 

In 1904, the ‘Explorer’s Club’ was founded in New York to bring together eminent explorers and scientists. Feeling dismissed because it was an all-male organisation, a group of intrepid women set up the Society of Women Geographers in 1920. To celebrate this a decade later, AFAR travel magazine have reinvented an all-female travel society, https://www.afar.com/magazine/women-to-watch-2020where I am surprised to be included (and a little ashamed to be listed with Greta Thurnberg given the level of travel I have participated in). From Arctic and Antarctic exploration, air and space travel, to campaigning for protection of land and climate, the last century of exploration has been about looking out at our external world. 

However, the crises we face in the 2020’s are rather different than those of the 1920’s. In most of the world we are not fighting for women to vote or venture beyond the domestic sphere. We are beyond figuring out what continents lie where or whether the earth is flat or round. We are instead struggling to make sense of the climatic, political, consumption-focused chaos of our densely populated world, and now with a virus strain that threatens our very existence. Perhaps it is time for a different type of exploration.

In these times, the explorer in me has a foot in two camps: to explore the ‘traditional’ way, to discover other lands and cultures and the external world; but I also love to explore the internal world. Life has taught me to look within, and largely thanks to the trauma of spinal cord injury and the challenges it brings at times, I can find as much adventure and discovery during weeks spent largely alone in a small room as I can cycling across a continent. It will prove very useful in these weeks of lockdown.

In 2020, the ‘old’ explorer in me has been planning the last of the ‘Quest 79’ journeys (www.karendarke.com/quest79) , a series of cycle rides across the 7 continents. The last journey remains, to Antarctica to create the ‘Pole of Possibility’. The vision is to inspire many on what is collectively possible when people, passion and purpose come together. I have learned through these journeys and my companions on them, most of them entering totally new terrain for themselves, that stepping into new territory and being brave enough to change ourselves impacts the people around us, the communities we are part of, and in turn that can change the world: heart by heart, step by step.

Simultaneously, the ‘new’ explorer in me is focused on journeying within. I am discovering more deeply than ever how each of us can rewire our brain and recondition our body, and change our world from the inside out. I am fascinated with exploring our ability to heal, to ignite the potential within us for abilities and possibilities we may barely be able to imagine. I believe we can change our energy, transmute dis-ease and create wellness for ourselves if we pursue practical ways of reducing stress and pay careful attention to the thoughts we have and the emotions that we attach to them. This is so relevant now that our medical systems can barely cope: systems that under normal conditions are incredible at managing medical trauma, but that lack solutions for chronic conditions. 

If exploration of the 1920’s and since has been externally-focused, towards new horizons and outer space, perhaps exploration of the 2020’s and forwards calls to combine our ‘outward’ knowledge with exploring inwards, towards understanding how we can change and influence our reality and our world from within. 

Today with Covid-19 we are suddenly all explorers, pushing into new territory. We may experience pain and trauma – in the ‘old explorer’ world it could be analogous with long days trekking in extreme cold with little food across a frozen unknown continent, not knowing what will happen from one hour to the next. But we will also experience moments of clarity, peace and maybe an unfathomable appreciation of what is unfolding – like an explorer in the depths of uncertainty pausing to take in a new horizon or a soul-moving sunset. In unknown territory, the degree to which we resist the reality of our new world and wish for things to be different will influence our degree of suffering.

With social distancing, we have an opportunity. There is time, permission and space to recover, reflect, re-connect, re-set and re-emerge in a new way. We can recognize patterns in ourselves and our society that need to change (busy-ness, stress, separation, limitation….?), let down old ways of thinking, break old habits and ways of being and open up to new possibilities for ourselves and the world we live in. Perhaps this is an opportunity to discover how we can change ourselves inside to change our world outside. 

An explorer needs to be prepared for the unexpected, to be resilient, adaptable, to live in the moment and let go of fear about the future. 

An explorer finds freedom and peace in the fact that things are changing and unfolding, letting go of futile worry about what will happen tomorrow. 

An explorer needs to trust and rely on team-mates, a “we are in this together and we will get through this together” approach. 

An explorer always needs to pack some vital ingredients, and its usually not toilet roll or baked beans. Here is my favourite packing list… 

  • COURAGE: We have to be bold and brave in facing new horizons, and willing to embrace the unknown, to face what feels like disaster or trauma but trust that ultimately we will arrive in a better place.
  • INSPIRATION: We can be inspired by the experience of others – in the case of Covid-19 that may be the Chinese, the Italians, the medics, those on the frontline…but also by anyone you know who has lived through trauma or difficult times or has experience in resilience.
  • SWEAT: We have to work hard. Take a break for a short while, but there is work to do here too, to stay mentally, physically, emotionally and economically sane and healthy. Or to stand for what we believe in or feel passionate about, where we may previously have put it off.
  • LOVE: Despite the isolation, we can connect now more than ever, on a different, deeper, heart-felt level with other amazing humans, supporting each other through this challenge, pulling together with the tools that technology allows us to, and expecting that surprising things will be possible… 

Thanks for listening or reading this first blog. Over the coming weeks I will share one a week, each with a theme that I hope will be useful for you in your life at this time. Each theme has been a gift that I have learned from each of the Quest 79 journeys, so if you stay tuned, I will be taking you on a virtual travel experience, exploring both ‘outside’ and ‘inside’. Next week, the ‘Golden Way’ which was my journey to the Rio Paralympic Games…and the topic of beliefs. 

Future topics will include:

The Golden Way : Beliefs
The Wild Way : Vulnerability
The Express Way : Freedom
The Water Way : Gratitude
The Sacred Way : Love
The Hot Way : Joy
The Continental Way : Transformation
The Cold Way : Possibility

Audio version of this blog at https://soundcloud.com/karen-darke-110198085/inner-gold-to-be-an-explorer-episode-1