I awoke very early on Friday morning. Ironically, the morning I can take an easier start I wake up bright as a button early. I’ve a long term relationship with insomnia though, so waking up at 4am after 6 hours sleep doesn’t feel as irritating or worrying as it used to – especially when I wake up with the feelings I did Friday. Once I “came to”, and felt below the story of “its too early” I connected to my experience – I felt alive, energised, excitement was there coursing through the core of my being. There was a wholeness and a potential that I came to realise and acknowledge has not felt within reach for maybe a couple of years.
This time two years ago, I was struggling with severe Reynauds in my hands – the first winter in our new home, at first I put it down to the challenge of keeping an old Victorian house well-heated. But the poor blood flow to my fingertips became an ever present dull ache in my finger joints, and the symptoms seemed to spread across my body and worsen. In the summer of 2019, I arrived at a diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue. I provide this summary to give some context to my experience on Friday. As I met with my supervisor later that morning, I explained to her that it felt like I was beginning to bounce back after 2 years of walking through treacle each day. I hadn’t had this energy and relish for my life, my work for so long. As well as the excitement there was relief.
How come? What is coming together that is allowing a fogginess to lift?
Undoubtedly there are a few things rather than one cause. I believe the new practices I am doing as a Vajrayana student of Buddhism are key. I also feel my life circumstances are settling such that I feel the potential and possibilities, with the ‘added seasoning’ of gratitude for what I have: a good support network of mentors and fellow-travellers, a private practice that is thriving, a teaching role (without course leadership) that is stimulating and rewarding. I can point to several experiences in the past 3 weeks that exemplify each of this list, but perhaps the most figural for me is the relationships I have with my close circle, the key people in my life.
On Thursday, the day before my morning ‘awakening’, I Skyped with a long time friend of mine. Annie and I used to cycle together on the same team “Science in Sport”. We formed a strong bond, one that has transcended the bike and continued long past our retirements from competition. We often laugh at who we have become – a fascinating paralleling in our journeys from athletes through to helping professionals and now, to writers. It was a conversation that inspired me – Annie’s update on her own writing projects, the aliveness in her eyes as she showed me her A3 book of colourful mind maps full of project ideas. In her aliveness I saw the same potential in me. It helped that I had my own writing time scheduled in later that day – finishing last week’s blog post in fact. I camped out in a local cafe before heading out for dinner: a pretty luxurious venue, accompanied by a glass of Malbec – how could I NOT feel inspired and indeed, privileged.
More of the same over dinner – all three of us at the table were working on books, albeit different emphases and requirements – one editing collected chapters from many contributors, one writing an academic book in the psychotherapy field, and then my semi-autobiographical relaying of how a Buddhism / psychotherapy meld can underpin the healing task. I shared the conversation I had with Annie that morning, and I reflected upon how as sport scientist and coach I had the ability to “riff” around all things performance and training. I could write fluidly and soon place my hands on a theory or research paper to back up my statements. It was a confidence that came from knowledge and a depth only gained by immersion through PhD scholarship and a solid research publication CV.
I don’t have that depth of immersion in psychotherapy nor Buddhism. Maybe it will come with time but it doesn’t feel necessary. What I have been contacting in the past few days is a confidence not based on knowledge but one based on trusting my experience and honouring that my voice is worth adding to the chorus out there. One of my dinner companions on Thursday evening talks about owning his archetypal ’elder’ – how later in life we can step in to a new role in society and contribute our experiential wisdom. That inspires me too.
When I woke up early Friday, I went to the meditation cushion and let the energy course through my veins. As I finished, I glanced over to my bookcases and the shelf dedicated to the writing life beckoned me. I obliged and took a collection of ‘to read’ books and placed them next to me as I sat down to journal. I flicked through the work of Natalie Goldberg – an author I searched out a couple of years ago but had been left on my shelf. I felt I was now ready to ingest her approach to writing – not to write in order to produce an outcome, but rather as a practice in and of itself. This is what had energised me when I saw Annie’s A3 notebook – the colours, the creativity, the opportunity to express what needs to be contacted within. Annie’s notebook inspired me, whether those ideas come to fruition or not.
“We all have a dream of telling our stories, of realising what we think, feel and see before we die” – Natalie Goldberg
On my way to Lewes for my supervision session, I listened to Susan Piver interviewing Natalie Goldberg for an IDP podcast. Given my connection to both IDP and Susan, this combination immediately instilled trust – I love how life weaves a path so that when we are ready to connect to a theme, the people we trust are present there already! The IDP podcast no longer runs, but you can find the interview archived here.
I share with you now some key themes I am holding as I contemplate what a writing life might look like for me…
Writing as a practice: Natalie shared how it was her Zen master teacher that suggested she use her writing as a practice. She had recognised the trap of “being a good meditator” and in pursuit of that had found herself becoming too rigid. Katagiri Roshi saw she enjoyed writing and through that she could be freer and had her best path toward waking up. I’ve often considered how my therapeutic work, as an aspiring bodhisattva, is my practice toward awakening. However, I recognise the trap of “becoming a good therapist” – in myself and in the students I work with. I have often longed for a more creative pursuit to enjoy for the sheer hell of it. Certainly my brief encounter with drumming had this looseness; and one aspect of building my own websites has been the outlet I found for my creative self.
Speaking on resistance: Natalie and Susan reflected on the experience of encountering a block in writing. Why is it we go from something we enjoy to needing, as Susan called it, a “virtual machete” to cut through resistance. Natalie shared that in her experience human life tests us. Making a commitment makes us vulnerable: as soon as we really want something, we are stepping out of the norm and in to the light. Her way of dealing with this resistance, inherent to human life is not to fight it but to recognise and fully experience it rather than intellectualise or attempt to understand it. Ambivalence is an energy that clients often bring to therapy sessions with a sense of bewilderment. “Why is it I want this so badly yet when it comes to it I sabotage / procrastinate etc?” . I remember during my training as a cyclist, committing to being the very best I could be, wanting it with very bone of my being, but resenting it equally. So I can see what Natalie means when she says wherever we turn there is resistance. She treats it as “my old friend”; see it for what it is and then and “just do it”. She sees the link between excitement and fear, the transformation coming as soon as we make a commitment under all circumstances. When writing becomes a practice, it is not for our well-being but rather to go to the very ground of our being. This certainly resonates with me as a Gestalt practitioner – the wholeness of our being, including the resistance, ambivalence, chaos.
The goal is not to produce but to touch the ground of our human life: I appreciated Susan enquiring how we approach writing a story without solidifying a narrative. As two Buddhist practitioners and writers this is the nub of it. How do we construct a narrative in the service of letting go of our story and the self who possesses it? When I was researching in physiology, undoubtedly I was publishing in the service of creating a reputation. It is very freeing for me to be starting out on a different tack. Writing not from the small or ego-mind but rather stepping out of my own way. When I teach meditation, I often invite students to let the breath breathe by itself, to not interfere. The approach to writing – that Natalie further details in her book “Writing down the bones” feels akin to this – letting the writing write itself.
I’ve never written with discipline: “I have tremendous confidence in my own mind” is how Natalie describes her ability to keep writing. She rejects the idea that we need discipline to move forward, and instead we access passion, dedication and love – like Susan remarks, incredibly magnetising and rousing qualities. Looking back over my career path(s), I have arrived where I am now through good discipline, it was something my parents helped foster yet it has also been my arch ‘enemy’ in many ways. I get why Natalie asks “Why do we do that to ourselves?” When I started meditating, I applied the same rigour to my meditation, and I was far too tight. I am a better meditator now (whatever ‘better’ means!) because I have let go and become gentler. Chronic Fatigue has been my greatest teacher in this regard. In the Buddhist tradition, we have the Eightfold Path, and one of the practices is about examining the skilfulness of our “effort” – not too tight, not too loose; allowing some flexibility and light holding of the leash. I hear that Natalie is encouraging me, and us, to “show up and connecting with what is” – and that is the ground of her confidence. Not to create experience, but to be with experience as it is. Her first teacher was Chogyam Trungpa RInpoche, and he taught the importance of “First thought” so rather than something contrived (with our second and third thoughts) instead to trust a connection to mind and body. I loved the example she and Susan talked of: when we hear the word “love” our first through might be avocado, but something more “clever” might become valentines. This cleverness is in fact a form of laziness, and if we go below this level of thinking we can connect to a life force, the ground of our being.
I am really looking forward to spending more time getting to know Natalie’s work. It feels like she will be a useful ally for my book project, but also as I go off the beaten track and simply enjoy writing from the core of me: writing to write so I get the opportunity to speak my truth and meet that longing I have to connect to myself, and to other.