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