The only way out is through

Mountain rideThe way the sun cut through the twilight blue, the way the bird song had a tilt of optimism…little reminders; today I’ve been thinking back to years gone by when I would be spending time in warmer climes on training camps. For about 7 years, the first couple of weeks in February would be spent in Mallorca preparing for another season. First as an athlete, and then as a coach accompanying te cyclists I trained. For all of us, annual cycles give us chance to look back, reflect on how life has changed, how we have changed.

The first memories of Mallorca that came to mind were the people; people I don’t see anymore – I often wonder if their lives have continued in the same community and with the same annual pattern. I remember the fun of it all: the camaraderie, the thrill of the physical challenge, the early spring sunshine allowing us to strip back to shorts and short sleeved tops knowing those still at home would be faced with snow and ice! And then, I remembered the fear. The big training sessions, the long rides where you limp home in to a headwind, the mountainous rides that inevitably had as many downhill miles as uphill (I loved climbing, hated descending the switchbacks). I would lie in bed aching to be going home…yet I chose to go on camp every year. What was I doing to my self…note “I” to “self”: two characters – the master, the slave. Of course now I know what was going on; I know myself better. My training as a psychotherapist has given me theories and understanding; and my training as a Buddhist on the meditation cushion helps me feel what could never be felt back then.


Working with my clients, I get to see people in very different stages of their therapeutic journey. My own journey, while life long, started in a different vain some 16 years ago – just as I was coming to the end of my competitive cycling career. My experience helps me to really see what my clients are up against. I know how hard it is to shift life long patterns. Yet, there is no shortcut – as much as I would like to offer my clients change without pain, I know that pain is PART of the journey to wholeness.

I look back on my cycling career with a whole array of emotions and insight. I can now see how cycling acted like a vehicle, in many senses of the word. I see how it helped me have a ‘healthier’ addiction / obsession – in terms of the control it gave me. I can see how it helped me squash my emotional world – that job had previously been via my intellect, at least now I was involving my body (even if it still was split off). The Buddhist dharma explains there is wisdom AND neurosis in all that we do. Cycling was in one way a life line; through it I found a way to carry on. Yet it also helped me avoid, suppress, deflect, distract from what was going on beneath. And yet like I say it was the opening to something. When I first entered therapy, one of the first things I shared was my confusion “why do I do this to myself?” The physicality of it somehow allowed me to see the patterns I had long been activating through academic achievement.

That initial blindness, or in psychotherapeutic speak patterns outside of our awareness – we might consider that phase 1. We don’t know what we are doing, we might not even know we are in pain…but something doesn’t feel right. It is like a small part of us has “clocked it” – and that heralds phase 2. The long held down “lid” gets dislodged, we start to question, to understand our past, and decades of feeling beneath the suppression slowly starts to be released. This phase is awfully hard – and it can be very tempting to jack it in. I see this with clients: the initial relief therapy affords through understanding slowly moves to one side and the pain ramps up. It can almost feel like things are getting worse – like one client who said to me last week “what have you done to me Helen?”. I feel their pain – because I know. I know my own experience of pain, and I know they (like me) have to go through this. The only way out of pain is to go through it. To feel what has not been allowed to be known before.

Even with clients that understand that their feelings need to be felt, there is a desire to fast forward – a naiveté that understanding is a substitute for feeling it. How many times I hear something along the lines of “but Helen, I know why this happens, why doesn’t it end?” Or “but I know where this anxiety comes from, why won’t it go away? how can I just get rid of it?”


Get rid of “it”.

What is the “it”?

“It” is the part of us that needs to be listened to. Any emotion is a message. We’ve long locked it outside the room, now we need to invite it in, sit it down and offer it tea. We might even view the “it” as the most deeply wounded part of our self, that young child who continues to reside in ALL adult versions of us. Would we want to “get rid” of a crying child? Our children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces?

As a psychotherapist greatly influenced by the Buddhist teachings, I have come to value the double-whammy of the traditions personally and professionally. Sitting down with a therapist, telling them my story, gaining new insight and understanding as to the “why” of my story – invaluable. I found my emotional self with the help of a trusted other. Sitting down in meditation allowed me to digest my emotional life – to give space to the anxiety, to feel its energy, to know it and its message. Mediation has given me the vessel for the alchemical process – anxiety dissipates with space. It doesn’t disappear, it takes a new form – I feel its wisdom, I have developed a new relationship with it.

This third phase can take a long time to reach; in many ways I feel I am just entering it properly (I had been very good at talking a good game!). I imagine I might well be here a long time! Is there a fourth phase? One of the Lojong slogans says “abandon all hope of fruition”. There is little point to meditate or to be in therapy with an outcome in mind. We cannot know what lies ahead as we listen to our emotional world – and that is what can feel like a risk when we open to the body and its feeling.

only way out through tunnel

The magic is the process itself. Honestly. We need to trust the process and have faith that what is working its way through has wisdom. For therapists, it can be hard taking on the responsibility for opening up “a can of worms” – we too must have faith, that opening the wound to the air is ultimately what heals. Back to where we began this post today, back to Mallorca. Some of the mountain roads that had to be descended went through long, unlit tunnels. This is perhaps a useful metaphor: as much as I hated it, I had to cycle through the tunnel. I had to feel my fear of descending in the dark and simply hold on and trust. There are no short cuts, there are no magic wands.

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