I’ve been inspired to write this blog by my dear friend Bernie Nolan, a wise and experienced practitioner of acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine. He trained in Japan and Korea and has many decades of practice and experience. He is currently recovering from heart surgery. We spoke today…
“How are you doing?” I asked him.
“Yes, getting stronger” he replied, “I’ve walked out to the café a few times”. There was a small pause before he delved in deeper. “But I keep crying for no reason. I don’t get it as I haven’t got anything to cry about. It’s all gone well and everyone has been so good to me.”
I reminded him he’d just had major heart surgery and we chatted about what the heart represents in Chinese Medicine: the seat of all emotions. The heart houses our emotional and spiritual wellbeing (Shen), which affects our mental function and our vitality.
“Not really a surprise you’re crying then” I giggled, reflecting on how frequently I cry without any obvious cause. When I cry it always seems to release something and leaves me feeling better.
Knowing that our emotions, organs and physical health are intimately connected doesn’t make us immune to experiencing all of it. Despite all the knocks and experiences we have, we often wonder why we are ill or emotional, almost denying or fighting it for fear that something ‘worse’ might follow. But any event can act as a trigger, shock or shift the balance and have an ensuing physical or emotional affect.
I used to think that crying was unhelpful rather than healing. We often view anything that takes us out of our ‘normal’ as threatening, uncomfortable or a cause to worry. But what if being comfortable with being uncomfortable is an important aspect of being human? It may even a very healthy, helpful thing.
When we find ourselves in challenging situations, unexpected or planned for, we face choices about if and how to move through the membranes of fear that inevitably veil us. We doubt our capacity to manage; wonder if we will ever adapt; we grapple with our perceptions of the situation in which we find ourselves. We may enter a psychologically difficult or darker place, a part of us perhaps shrivelled, lost, unconfident or fragile without the comfort and life of what we once knew.
“I would rather be dead than paralysed” was my own judgement around the terror of a life unable to walk, and twelve hours later, I was there. I entered the blackness, the depression associated with loss or decay of our known world. A motorbiker crashed at a hundred miles an hour into a wall; he lay opposite me in hospital, a brace on his spine for a while before he walked away. Then a friend died in a climbing accident as innocuous as my own.
When tough stuff arrives with us, there is no just, no reasoning. We are thrown off piste without a map. We judge or worry that how we are feeling or responding is not okay. We may seek distraction and support from others, medication, healing or therapy or anything for a rapid fix. All of that is good, but what else can we do to help ourselves from within, without the need to look outside? With some simple ‘inner’ steps, we have the possibility to transcend the struggle by alchemising our perception of any life situation. Here are a few of my go-to actions to help when things get out of balance:
- Focus on small positive actions. What is one tiny thing you can do now that you or someone you care about might appreciate? Take baby steps, one at a time, focusing on the next small action. The cumulative positive effect of baby actions is great.
- Give time to an activity (or activities) that you enjoy and that that take you into the moment. This activates the ‘positive task network’ of the brain, which helps us be in the here and now. It enables us to experience ‘flow’ which releases helpful, mood-enhancing neurochemicals in our brain.
- Stop unhelpful thoughts. Thinking about what might be, could be, should be, or might have been all activate the default mode network of the brain. It is useful for planning and organising, but there are negative effects about ruminating too much over the past or future, and it will often cause use to feel down or anxious. Learn more here, https://youtu.be/vo_VANW35b0
- Talk to yourself like you would to your best friend or someone you love: encouraging, resassuring, reminding yourself of strengths and replacing unhelpful thoughts with those of appreciation. This can feel extra powerful if you put one hand over your heart, and the other over your stomach area.
Struggle exists in the gap between accepting what is and wishing for what was or might be. The ‘other place’ seems somehow better. We compensate for what is not. But what if where we are and the emotions and physical things we are experiencing are perfectly okay: nothing to fear, nor avoid, guaranteed to shift and change like the weather. The sun will shine again…
I write this with the knowing that this can be hard. For years I sought action and distraction. I set ever-greater challenges. They started small…how to pull my pants on when you’re paralysed, learning to swim… But soon I was handcycling across mountain ranges and continents, then training and competing for Paralympic medals. Others elevated me with perceptions of resilience and ability to overcome. But I wonder if I was a fugitive, dodging something indeterminate. I still forage for freedom anywhere I can. Moving my body. Seeking adventure: other lands, other people, experiences far and wide.
In the process of foraging, we look high and low. We look up to others who seem to represent something that we perhaps lack – resilience, strength, ability, skill. We look down at those who reflect something that we fear is within us – weakness, depression, anger, helplessness. We play in a world that judges and positions and assigns comparative merit. Podiums. Prizes. Awards. We rustle and hustle between being better and fearing worse, aspiring to, aligning with or rejecting others that support our process. Despite the muddle, being out of our comfort zone gradually leads us to releasing pain and past.
We feel it. We heal it.
The philosopher’s stone is the mythical alchemical substance that turns base metals into precious ones like gold. When pushed to probe at our limits, we may resist and wish for easier times, but perhaps this struggle is exactly what can transform. Our own philosopher’s stone.
At those edges, in the extremes of discomfort, we can find our own formula of substances and philosophies that help us live more brightly than we ever otherwise could. Keep exploring, both out and in, knowing that only lived experience can show us the magic.
At those edges of life, the darkness dwindles. Everything can lighten. A glow emerges, a landscape lit by a bright new dawn.
Wishing you all brightness after dark.
Bernie, you already see it.