Into the New Year …

img_1874It’s been a real delight to have lots of feedback about my last post.  So many of you have told me that water has a strong effect on you and your moods – so I’m sure you’ll forgive me for another post that’s heavy on water pictures.

In a few days time I will be leaving the beauty of New Zealand behind and travelling back to England to my family, my home, my pets and ‘real life’.  I’m leaving New Zealand feeling significantly better than when I arrived.  I still have ME/CFS and the symptoms continue to show themselves, but I’m much better at recognising the early warning signs and preventing things from spirallling downwards.   I’ve had a wonderful opportunity to take a pause from the busyness of life, to rest deeply,  and to feast my senses on the magnificence of Nature.  I’ve also had the time and space to reconnect with myself at the deepest level – to ‘come home to myself’.

img_2639When I was teaching yoga classes I used to say that yoga gives us the tools to learn how to stop, become still, and reach inwards to that part of us that is unchanging.  The part of us that is quiet and peaceful no matter what else is going on in our lives.  The part of us that is tranquil.  Undisturbed.  The part that is always there but is so often hidden by the aches and pains in our body, the worries and fears in our mind, or perhaps just the sheer busyness of our lives.  I do believe that yoga does gives us tools to do that.  But sometimes – for a whole myriad of reasons – it becomes harder to settle into that quietness and stillness and to drink deeply of the peace that dwells within.  When I first arrived in New Zealand I was in that space.  I felt depleted.  My mind was busy and my body was exhausted. Things that I had once found easy had become intensely difficult – including relaxation and meditation – and of course we can’t “try harder” to relax!

img_9650Over the past few weeks I have begun to remember how to let go.  How to relax.  How to rest deeply.  How to enjoy the world around me and the world within.  I am incredibly grateful to my family who have given me this opportunity to retreat from the busyness of my life at home and to have time and and space to become internally still and reconnect with myself – with my inner light.

Coming home will bring new challenges, but I return with a sense of optimism and joy as well as a whole host of practices and strategies and a greater understanding of what prompts and exacerbates my fatigue.  I’m sure that it won’t all be easy, but I feel in a much better place to address any challenges than I was back in October last year.  I’m looking forward to being back with my family, friends, pets and the beautiful countryside of Great Britain.  And I’m full of gratitude for the enormous gifts that this time away has given me.  I trust that I’ll continue to have musings to share on this blog and that this journey from burnout to bliss will continue.  And I hope that I’ll be able to share photographs of beauty much nearer to my home.

img_1984was reminded by Facebook yesterday that a year ago I had shared a poem called “Inner Light”.  It was reading this poem again that prompted this post.  I have always known in my heart the truth of what Danna Faulds writes about in this poem, but somehow the effects of CFS had meant that I found it increasingly difficult to become sufficiently still in mind and body to experience that truth.

May the year 2017 bring to us all plenty of opportunities to be still and recognise our own light, and to be reminded that we are all “tiny stars, glowing in the dark”.

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Inner Light – Danna Faulds

The inner light is always with me.
When I slip beneath the agitated
surface of the mind, I find it,
like a fragment of the Big Bang,
still glowing.  This energy doesn’t
depend on health or strength
or even mental peace.  It isn’t a
product of belief, nor is it “me” in
any egocentric way of speaking.
The inner light is always there,
waiting to be felt and seen, waiting
for me to release it through my
choice to be still and recognize
its presence.  The illumination
grows the more I let it go.  Like
radiant heat it flows out of me,
flows from my whole being

without leaving me depleted.
We’re all like this – whether we
know it yet or not – tiny stars,
glowing in the dark.

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Water and me …

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Milford Sound, New Zealand

The last time I wrote for this blog was in early December, before setting out to travel for two weeks around the South Island of New Zealand with my sister. In that blog piece I wrote about the kinds of practices I have been doing to slowly return from a place of exhaustion.  I mentioned that I have been trying to ignore the “do more, achieve more, write more” whispers of my inner tyrant and learn how to rest rather than find things to write for this blog.  But those whispers are hard to completely silence, and the pause between Christmas and New Year seemed like a good time to get my fingers on the keyboard and allow some of the thoughts that have been percolating over the past month to begin to find ways of expression.

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My travels around New Zealand’s South Island were wonderful. The scenery is spectacular and I was lucky enough to get the chance to visit a lot of incredibly beautiful places. I saw this beauty from the air, on foot, from the windows and viewing decks of trains, and through the windows of the New Zealand Inter City coaches. I had brought books to read and things to listen to – but I found that I didn’t use either for the entire time of travelling – I was transfixed by the ever changing landscape, soaking up the atmosphere of being in a new place – or simply too exhausted to do anything except fall asleep! I was grateful for my trusty phone camera and in most places I took photos – though I was keen not to experience the whole of my journey from behind a screen.

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As I look through the photos I took and remember the places we visited I am struck by what really captured my attention. The changing skyline as we moved through the Canterbury Plains into the mountainous areas and to the spectacular coastlines; the vibrancy of the colours – the greens of the grass and the blues of the sky in some parts looking almost unreal; and the changing farming use of the land – we saw dairy and beef farming, sheep farming, vineyards, orchards and many areas with deer grazing on venison farms. But what struck me most of all was all the water – in so many different forms – and more particularly the effect that the water had on me and my emotions.

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My sister reminded me that from an early age I’d always been drawn to water. I had, aged 3, apparently claimed the fountains of central London as “mine” – and was hugely disappointed when travelling on the Number 3 bus from home in Dulwich into the city if ‘my’ fountains in Central London weren’t playing for me. I’ve certainly always enjoyed swimming and playing in water, and I vividly remember the glorious sense of freedom I felt when at 8.5 months pregnant I got into the swimming pool and and was able to do backwards somersaults with my legs untucked. I felt free and supported and it was as if my body simply wanted to dance with joy in that water! It was almost an instinctual movement rather than something I thought about.

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When travelling around New Zealand I began to notice the huge draw that water held for me. Like many others I am energised by being by the sea. And on the three occasions that I went on boat trips while I was away it almost felt as if I’d plugged myself into the elemental mains. In addition to this upsurge of energy when I was by the sea I found that I became disproportionately upset when we were on buses travelling past stunningly beautiful rivers. I watched myself rather desperately trying to “catch” photographs from the moving bus and becoming tearful with frustration as I wanted so badly to stop the bus, get off, and spend a few minutes just sitting with the power and beauty of the water. The feeling was so strong it was almost visceral – so much so that since returning from my trip I’ve been trying to find some poetry or quotation that reflected this emotion. The closest that I have found was from what seems to be a very “Marmite” fantasy novel by Nadia Scrieva – Drowning Mermaids, Sacred Breath 1: (which I have to confess I haven’t read!)

“It is rooted deep in your bones; the water calls out to you until it causes you physical pain unless you come to it.”

So … perhaps the caption that I put with the following  picture has some element of truth in it …

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I think I’m part mermaid.  I sigh with relief when I’m by the sea

Since being back in Hamilton I’ve done some fascinating reading on the research of Dr Masuro Emoto who claimed that the molecular structure of water altered according to the kind thoughts it had been exposed to, or the environment it had run through.  Although there has been scientific criticism of his methods and conclusions, my own personal reactions to being near water and its transformative effects on me have meant that I’ve become fascinated with the role of water in healing.  From the ritual washing of Moslems before prayer, to Christian baptism, the Jewish Mikvah and the Hindus bathing in the Ganges,  the cleansing properties of water have long been recognised for spiritual as well as purely physical purposes.  And Lao Tzu’s famous observation  “Water is fluid, soft and yielding.  But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield…”   reminds us of water’s almost paradoxical properties.

Just spending a few brief minutes thinking about water I realised that there is enough material on the subject to fill a whole book let along a short blog piece.  Water exists in solid, gas and vapour form, it covers between 70-75% of the earth’s surface,  and has a higher surface tension than many other liquids.  Not only are our bodies approximately 70% water, but the average human cannot survive more than 3- 5 days without water.  And because the earth is a closed system, with water falling as snow and rain to then melt and evaporate and fall once more, the same water that existed on the earth millions of years ago is still present today.  And that’s before I even started to think about how water is soothing, cleansing, refreshing, healing and invigorating.  Or about the ways that different cultures have used water for ritual and healing purposes as well as for simple pleasure.

And this in itself is a valuable lesson for me.  Instead of spending hours researching and writing a piece that is scholarly and clever I have reminded myself of the purpose of my visit to New Zealand and of writing this blog.  I’m here to learn how to rest more deeply.  How to ‘unlearn’ some of the habits and behaviours that have contributed to me developing CFS.  And one of those behaviours is to want things to be perfect before  I decide they’re ready to be seen.  So I shall finish writing now by simply saying that one of my learning points from being here is recognising the importance of water to my emotional and physical wellbeing.  Some people find peace and tranquility in the mountains, for others it is woodland and deep forests that become their sanctuary – but for me it is water.  From a still, quiet lake, to a tumbling waterfall; from a woodland stream to a wild, fierce ocean – each of these seem to touch my soul.  And I believe that we all need to ways to regularly connect with our deepest nature and a sense of transcendence.

I am delighted to be able to write that tomorrow I am going away for a few days with my sister and her family to a beach house here in New Zealand.  How very blessed I am!

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The first 30 days …

 

It has been a little over a month since I first touched down in New Zealand.  Tomorrow I’m off with my sister to spend nearly two weeks exploring some of the beauty of the South Island.  I’m very conscious that I’d like to have published something before our great adventure – so here’s a little update for those who are interested in reading.

The month has been a mix of days out every now and then to enjoy some of the fabulous sights and activities in the local area, and a lot of quiet time spent within walking distance of my new home in Hamilton.  Since writing my last post I’ve visited a tea estate and learned more about tea than I’d every known before, seen the stunning Waireinga/Bridal Veil Falls after heavy rainfall, and spent a short time visiting the wonderful surfing and beach town of Raglan.  I’ve also spent a couple of half days exploring Waikato Museum and Hamilton Gardens. It has all been very beautiful, but I have found that I have needed the many days that I have spent pottering around at home to  regain my energy.

On the days that I’ve spent at home I’ve sometimes felt frustrated with the slowness of recovery, and how I still need to pace myself to avoid crashing after activity.  But then I remind myself once more of one of the poems that has had the biggest impact on my life and the gentle advice it offers.  Written by the wonderful John O’Donahue as part of his book of Blessings the poem is called “A Blessing for One Who is Exhausted“.  In this poem he describes with powerful accuracy how it feels to be utterly exhausted and burnt out.  Each time I come back to read it I find new wisdom, or another way that it rings true to me.

When I first arrived in New Zealand I’d already had 3 months at home without being in paid employment (I won’t say without working because running a home and looking after a family and animals does entail work!). On first arrival I believed that I was already some way along the road to recovery from CFS – and perhaps I was – but with hindsight I am able to see how very much I was constantly living on high alert and nervous energy, and how depleting that was for me. In my second blog post here I wrote about how surprising it was to me that even everyday activities like using new currency, or driving a car felt like huge obstacles and I found it hard to recognise myself in this strangely timid and unadventurous person. Knowing this poem so well I should not have been surprised:

“The light in the mind becomes dim.
Things you could take in your stride before
Now become laborsome events of will”

And he was right. Things that had once seemed simple required much more effort from me and often a determined act of will. Having read this poem so many times over the past few years I knew in my heart that what I really needed was deep, deep rest. But here I was on the other side of the world with a whole country to explore and a blog that I’d promised myself I’d write. So although the plan was all about resting and relaxing, on an internal level I was still telling myself I had to get out there to see New Zealand, I needed to find words to write – I had to make the most of this opportunity. And that pressure to ‘do’ was in danger of becoming another stick that I could beat myself with….

Thankfully I have those who love me who gave me wise counsel. “Take your time. Be kind to yourself. There’s no pressure to do, be, or write anything. Be patient.” As John O’Donahue says:

“There is nothing else to do now but rest
And patiently learn to receive the self
You have forsaken for the race of days”

And most poignantly of all:

“You have traveled too fast over false ground;
Now your soul has come to take you back.”

So these past 30 days have been in part an exercise in finding myself underneath the heavy weight of fatigue – of becoming quiet and allowing my soul to come and take me back. There are a number of practical steps that I have taken which I shall outline below, but the common thread that runs through them all is that of self-compassion. I have been trying to extend to myself the same kind of love and care that I’d offer to a student, a family member, or a very much loved friend. Simple in theory – but old habits and behaviours are hard to change and I believe it will be a lifelong practice for me.

1. Meditation
I have continued with a daily meditation practice but I am now much kinder to myself about what that might mean. Some days it’s a seated, silent meditation.  Other days a guided meditation practice. Sometimes I chant, and other times I do a slow mindful walking meditation. If I feel tired and want to meditate lying down – I let myself. And if I’m so tired that I fall asleep, instead of seeing that as a failure – I take it as an unexpected gift of deep rest.

2. Taking Selfies!
Over recent years I have found that I absolutely hate (and I do mean hate …) seeing photos of myself. I sometimes recoil in horror when I catch sight of myself in the mirror or a shop window – and believe me I know that’s not a healthy way to be. The usual way that I would have dealt with this would be to tell myself that I need to lose weight and to notice how tired and old I look.  Or I would simply avoid looking at myself.  Since arriving here I decided that I would take a ‘selfie’ every day of my break over here and learn to get used to how I look – and possibly even how to love the way I am. So – every day now – without giving it much thought I’ve taken a picture of myself. And bit by bit I can see how I’m looking a little less tired. A little less stressed  and sometimes I can even find something good to notice about myself – or I can actually smile and laugh at myself. This small practice is actually a huge one for me – learning to look at myself through the lens of love rather than criticism.

3. Photography and slow walking in nature
I have been taking daily gentle, slow walks in the beautiful spaces around me. The aim of the walk is not to get exercise or build stamina, but simply to let myself notice what I would usually rush past. A trip to the local shops becomes a voyage of discovery. I am able to smell a heady and intoxicating scent as I walk and then follow its source to jasmine and honeysuckle growing wild over a garden fence. I notice the new leaves unfurling daily and the roses moving from bud to full bloom. And where appropriate I play with my trusty camera phone and take photographs which I’m able to enjoy when I get back and share with others. And when it rains I can stop, take shelter and simply watch the beauty as it falls, and remind myself of John O’Donahue’s words of wisdom:

“Take refuge in your senses, open up
To all the small miracles you rushed through”


4. Writing, Journalling, & Inner Exploration
The final practice which I have found to be immensely helpful has been writing. On arrival in New Zealand and finding myself alone in the house and a little uncertain about just how to address my inner exploration I decided to join a 30 day online writing group run by the inimitable Lisa Lister.  Every day for 30 days we were sent emails exploring the cyclical nature of womanhood and giving us writing prompts that really encouraged us to drop the masks we put on for everyone else and get to know ourselves at the deepest level. Some of these prompts were uncomfortable to explore. Some brought insight and new truths. All of them made me think. Bit by bit Lisa encouraged us to dive deeply and to begin to write from a place of real truth and honesty – as she puts it to write “the story that resides in your heart + guts”. I truly feel as if some wonderful synchronicity was at work. The course timing was perfect for me – just when I really needed some guidance and the support of other women I joined this course which provided both the prompts, but also a private forum of other women also writing in response to the emails.  This gave me some structure for my own inner exploration and a support network to interact with. As other women shared their writing I found that we were all able to act as mirrors for one another – we could see ourselves in another’s writing. And by supporting each other it felt as if we were at the same time learning how to support and uplift ourselves.

So here I am just over a month into my stay.  I’ve seen a little of this beautiful country (as I hope the photographs will testify). I’ve begun the process of learning how to be kind to myself and how to rest deeply. Tomorrow my sister and I set off to explore The South Island, and, I suspect, a little bit about what it means to be sisters in our 50s – the last time we spent this long together was probably back in our teens!  I hope that I will still take the messages of self compassion, gentleness, rest and ease with me so that I can really enjoy the travels as part of my own personal journey. I’m hoping that the final lines of the poem are prophetic:

“Gradually, you will return to yourself,
Having learned a new respect for your heart
And the joy that dwells far within slow time.”

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For those of you who’d like to read the whole poem (and I certainly would encourage it) I have copied it below:


A Blessing For One Who Is Exhausted

When the rhythm of the heart becomes hectic,
Time takes on the strain until it breaks;
Then all the unattended stress falls in
On the mind like an endless, increasing weight,

The light in the mind becomes dim.
Things you could take in your stride before
Now become laborsome events of will.

Weariness invades your spirit.
Gravity begins falling inside you,
Dragging down every bone.

The tide you never valued has gone out.
And you are marooned on unsure ground.
Something within you has closed down;

And you cannot push yourself back to life.

You have been forced to enter empty time.
The desire that drove you has relinquished.
There is nothing else to do now but rest
And patiently learn to receive the self
You have forsaken for the race of days.

At first your thinking will darken
And sadness take over like listless weather.
The flow of unwept tears will frighten you.

You have traveled too fast over false ground;
Now your soul has come to take you back.

Take refuge in your senses, open up
To all the small miracles you rushed through.

Become inclined to watch the way of rain
When it falls slow and free.

Imitate the habit of twilight,
Taking time to open the well of color
That fostered the brightness of day.

Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.
Be excessively gentle with yourself.

Stay clear of those vexed in spirit.
Learn to linger around someone of ease
Who feels they have all the time in the world.

Gradually, you will return to yourself,
Having learned a new respect for your heart

And the joy that dwells far within slow time.

–John O’Donohue, from “Blessings” (now in book called Benedictus)

If you’re interested in reading more about and from John O’Donahue see here