Good, not great

Autumn equinox. A watershed into the ‘next’. What ‘was’ was the summer, and on going back to work that inevitable question “how was your summer?” I have found myself replying “Good, not great”.

I could have been answering the inquiry with that typical British phrase of “Not too bad thank you”, but I promised myself long ago that I wanted to be more honest; to not answer with stock phrases that tell others nothing. But I am also aware that in being more honest in my declaration, the “not great” part invites elaboration…I have not felt able to leave that hanging in the air between me and my questioner. And so too here, I will explain that qualifying second part…

“Good” because nothing was particularly “bad” – nice moments, lovely experiences in fact. I made plenty of time for writing, I enjoyed my cycling in a way I have not (perhaps) done before, I continued the festivities of celebrating my 50th year with friends and family; and of course, I celebrated the publication of my first book! All good things. The culmination of my summer recess was a holiday in my beloved France. That chapter in itself is a good micro through which to explore the macro of this “not great” phenomenon.

And this might be where I DO sound like a typical Brit…a seeming complaint about the weather. Yet how the weather played into the “good, not great experience” goes deeper, a truly ‘lived-experience’ in the words of the phenomenological thinkers whose ideas I follow as a psychotherapist in the humanistic tradition. Having a good summer is less about the good weather itself, but how good weather is an invitation to open in a bodily sense. My bodymind has missed out on a seasonal reset. In the winter, I feel how I close – gathering against the wind, the rain, the cold; the body tightens. In the summer, bodymind likes to unfurl.

This visceral responsivity came to mind as I was out cycling one day on the roads around Normandy. I passed a field of Alpaca, munching on their grass and hay. I was enjoying this sight (quite a contrast to the usual herds of cows!), and then the sun came out SO strongly. One alpaca dropped her feast, raised her head toward the sun, and closed her eyes. Just recounting this memory, I can relive emotion in that moment as I witnessed another being’s opening, a sense of having been starved and now fed with something. In that moment, I smiled and joined the face turning upward to the sunshine now blazing. I felt like one of the sunflowers in the landscapes I had been riding through.

And blazing was certainly the key experience of my second week on holiday; one spent further south in the Loire. While there temperatures soared into the late 30s; and now my bodymind was closed to the extreme heat. I am very aware of how fine a range of temperature is optimal for me! But now, an inability to relax and open was lived out through needing to strategise to still feel on holiday. Early morning starts to get out on my bike before the temperatures climbed too high; withdrawing back into the gite to stay cool in the afternoons; enduring temperatures that still had me bleeding beads of sweat into the evening and over dinner. For someone who spends 50 weeks of the year working with my propensity to plan, this was not a welcome feature of a holiday. As they say, when you go away, you take yourself with you! Good holiday, but not great.

So yes, “good, not great” is a consequence of not having felt that seasonal re-set. I believe I am probably more sensitive to it in these post-pandemic times. During Covid, the winter was a time to hang on, stand firm; the summer came to represent the time it was safe to open, my nervous system could relax its guard. The summer, although filled with nice things, lovely moments hasn’t given enough respite; and it feels an opportunity passed. This autumn equinox has arrived and I feel more closed that I would like starting a new cycle.

“Good, not great” is a story…of that I am very aware. And with all stories, the more we tell it, the more entrenched it becomes. Each time I have been asked “how was your summer?”, I have watched myself answer, being mindful that each time saying the same (somewhat rehearsed) risks it becoming true. I can see the set up; I can see the self-fulfilling prophecy. My practice as a Buddhist helps me lean into watching mind layering upon immediate experience with an opinion. I noticed that if I stayed with the intense heat in each moment, it was easier to stay with; when the immediate experience was seasoned with a preference, or indeed a prediction of what is going to happen (based upon fear), things heated up – within AND out of bodymind.

What I can find challenging is the tension between being receptive and being responsive. One might say strategising early morning activity is in fact skilful when the option is heatstroke! But I pondered this more deeply when the Loire valley was awash with “whiteout” skies during the exceptional Sahara dust phenomenon this summer. Is it in fact ‘exceptional’ anymore? Are we going to get more intense weather patterns in the years, decades ahead? Is it really sane to be thinking of moving further south to France as we stand on the verge of irreversible climate change? How much do we stay-with, how much do we look ahead? There are still nuances here across passive, receptive, active, responsive. One thing I know for sure, experiencing how quiet the wildlife went each day during those Sahara white outs and intense heat…I got a taste of something quite apocalyptic.

Even on a smaller scale, telling the story “good, not great” and then weaving the thread through to “and I didn’t have the summer I needed…and now I start this coming cycle less re-fresh….and so by Christmas I will be exhausted…blah, blah, blah”. That tension – how to look ahead, take care, and offset less initial battery charge…without making it SO through my predictions.

As always, life is a practice!

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