Connection

On the evening of the Summer Solstice I found myself standing before the tall iron gates to what looked like a secret garden. Beyond the concrete threshold I imagined trees, flowers and perhaps an ancient crumbling house full of long-buried secrets. My imagination often runs away with me in this way.

As the warm air tousled with my hair, I felt my shoulders drop a little and I forced myself to focus on the present moment. Sunlight cast dappled shadows on the soft earth beneath a canopy of trees. Trees spiralled upwards, arms outstretched, seeking the sun, seeking life.

Standing before the hidden woodland I hoped to find everything I loved about the world; connection. Connection with others, with mother nature and with my creativity. I was ready to embrace all that’s special about the summer solstice; reflection, gratitude and growth.

After a refreshing drink of homemade botanical water, the group of summer solstice seekers sat in a circle on the woodland floor, eyes shining with expectation. Soon enough we began our yoga session on what was the International Day of Yoga. There’s something meditative in in itself about yoga. Bending to the will of the caramel-toned voice, words commanding the body, gently coaxing the stresses of the day out and into the air. Being guided through a series of poses, thinking suspended, the body just fluid movements and the breath. There’s something freeing in the act of offering the body, connecting the mind with the body and harnessing the energy of the natural world. For someone who is very often stuck in their own head, this was an incredibly relaxing yoga session.

With limbs suitably loosened, we were guided through the steps to make our own willow crown, complete with woodland detritus. Sitting beneath the safety of the trees with a group of strangers, very quickly I felt my soul unburden as I discussed things I hadn’t shared with anyone outside of my close family. Very quickly I felt that I was among friends.

Soon we were asked to write something in response to our surroundings and were urged to follow our instincts. I felt a need to explore the woodland. My eyes fell upon a plant, whose stems were naked and had once held delicate sprays of tiny white flowers. The shape of its waning form reminded me of the four seasons. I let my instinct take over. Too often I overthink things, especially when it comes to writing. I wonder if they’d like that phrase? Will anyone read this? Is that the right word? It was freeing to let my mind flow and to trust that my instinct would drive the pen forward.

This is what I wrote:

Summon the seasons with one stem

There is all of life on this here stem.

Tiny spring growths have nourished forth,

Outstretched spines cradle creamy white flowers

bright as the rays of the sun.

Plump pods house next year’s life,

Skeletal tendrils cast delicate silouettes in the crisp moonlight.

With creativity unbidden, ideas flowed freely from my pen. Without the usual overactive mental commentary, my subconscious was able to run with its instincts.

By the end of the session my mind was brimming with ideas, my body was nourished from the wonderful food and my soul was imbued with the energy of the sun.

Our last task was to create an intention for ourselves for the coming months. Something that would guide and motivate us through the remainder of the year. My intention centered on the connection between our actions and our journey through life and how one is dependent on the other. After an evening full of connection, I now know that I have the ability to summon the strength of this special Summer Solstice whenever I need it.

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The three faces of silence

What is your relationship with silence? Is silence something that you avoid or that you seek to fill? Do you revel in the morning’s gentle hush before the onslaught of the working week has chance to seep into your bones?

Day to day, my relationship with silence is ever-changing and moves in waves, often depending on my mood. There have been other periods in my life when silence has shown a different face. During my childhood silence was an unwelcomed guest in my family home. Then, as I entered my twenties, silence took on a different form; like a spectre it stalked my nightmares as my struggle to balance university studies, a part-time job and home life dissintegrated into illness. It’s only after I emerged from the stress-fuelled brain fog that I began to examine my relationship with silence and learn to sit alongside it, even if I had not yet begun to like it.

The moods

I can’t remember when I became aware of my dad’s use of silence as a weapon but my body still houses the memory of how his silent days affected my young life. The memories linger in the clench of my jaw when I sleep, when my subconcious breaks through the protective wall I built around myself in wakefulness.

I remember one day as a small child, when I’d set off across the living room, toddling up to my dad as fast as my unsteady legs would carry me. With arms outstretched and my My Little Pony (the original 80’s version) t-shirt riding up over my plump arms, I’d waited, face upturned. There was no reaction from my dad to even suggest that I was in the room. Next I recall my mum ushering me into the garden and pointing at the pansies with petals like faces and smiling at how our cat looked like a statue curled up fast asleep on the lawn.

Days would pass by and the wedge between a happy home life and my dad seemed to expand. Nobody told me to avoid him but the after school routine seemed to speed up when he was in one of his ‘moods’. Mum would make tea a little earlier, help with my homework in between peering through the blinds of the front window and checking her watch. By the time dad arrived home from work – sometimes after 7pm – I’d be upstairs and ready for bed. As I grew up, my unformed mind interpreted Dad’s silence and absence as a rejection, I suppose, one I buried beneath my studies, determined to achieve and one day escape the silent days.

The silence is so loud

Once I left the family home and began to spread my adult wings, I felt lighter. I filled my days with my studies, over-planning and over-reading so as to keep up with the others in my class. My studies never came easy to me. I couldn’t slack off all term and then stay up the night before an exam with only a pot of coffee to fuel my revision and then breeze through with an A*. Only my friend Jo managed to do that and to this day I don’t know how she managed it! I studied for 12 hours a day sometimes – five hours if I had work that day too. Things took a nose-dive when I added job searching into my already frantic days. The worry about securing a job was real, especially since the banks had not long crashed.

Most of my class mates were from middle-class backgrounds and had plans to return to the family home if they couldn’t secure a job before graduation. For some, securing work would mean securing their very first job. I’d been working since I was 16 and didn’t have the safety net of the bank of mum and dad. It won’t come as a suprise to learn that I fell ill during final term.

In a nutshell I was exhausted. Mind and body threw hints my way in the form of infections and lingering bugs. I didn’t listen, choosing to work through the illnesses and still I worried about getting a job. I remember one day, dropping my laptop and bursting into loud bubbling tears for almost an hour. I couldn’t finish my essay. I couldn’t afford a new laptop. Everything was ruined.

Silence descended and I was forced to stop. When had silence become so loud? It grated on my frayed nerves. I couldn’t sit still. I had to drown out the silence. In the end I borrowed my sister’s old portable CD player (my ipod had given up the ghost long ago) and grabbed a few CDs from her, just to drown out the silence. This is something I laugh about now, how crazy I must’ve seemed to her – also, how retro are these references to obsolescent tech?

Peace in silence

Somehow time passed by and yes, I found a job – I was offered two actually – and I began to distance myself from the frenetic hours of studying.

About a month after I’d handed in my dissertation, I realised that I still felt quite poorly. I knew that my whirling thoughts and need for constant distraction was not normal. So I did what I always do when faced with a problem – I began to research it! Websites, books, magazines – I scoured them for solutions to the stress I was feeling. Let me tell you, I was willing to try anything. And that’s how me and my friend Lea ended up buying a yoga mat each and following a yoga DVD in her living room that hot summer. It’s also the reason why we took up cross stitching and crochet (her, anyway). Yes, I know – I was willing to try anything.

These new hobbies helped a little but I wasn’t fully invested, I’ll be honest. I did however, enjoy the free guided meditation I discovered in a magazine one day. I was sceptical to begin with. No one in my circle of friends did meditation and this was before Instagram, you have to remember.

The short meditation was a revelation. For the first time in months I could tolerate sitting in silence because the meditation meant that I was still doing something. I felt rested, as though I’d had a nap. It was unexpected and if I’m honest, a relief! Relief because I’d finally come to terms with the silence and because I now had a sure-fire way to help quieten my mind when it got too loud.

I still meditate these days. It’s not always formal, sit down meditation. Sometimes it’s a walking meditation, other times it’s a variation on mindfulness where I’ll force myself to notice every movement as I wash the dishes after dinner. That’s the great thing about meditation, it’s portable!

I’ve come to realise that silence isn’t static. It’s not one way of being. More often it is experienced by our own interpretations. And that’s ok.

Log out to tune in

I fell into the technology trap again recently. Reader, I regressed. Lured by the sweeping tide of the Brexit saga, my phone demanded my attention with every BBC News update and every WhatsApp group message. Every high-pitched notification sent my stomach into a spiral. What’s happened now? I’d wonder, as my fingers flew over the screen and a cold creeping dread settled in my gut.

Slowly the little pockets of quiet in my day disappeared. The magic of waking up early and lingering over breakfast, letting my mind wander on the commute to work, people watching in a beer garden as the evening sun sank below the trees leaving pink streaks and marshmallow clouds in its wake. Once again technology had me in its grip and I’d tuned out of real life.

Over a year ago, I was grappling with the pretty baffling symptoms of an undiagnosed health condition. Brain-fogged days dissolved into fitful nights where worries lurked in the shadows of my dreams.  My mind and body were gripped by fatigue.

My friend Jen came to the rescue, suggesting a day out to the seaside. It was to be a vintage day out to Llandudno, and she’d planned the works: ice creams on the pier, a trip to the amusement arcades and fish and chips on the Prom. The old Pier bustled with holidaymakers with pink shoulders and tan lines, women in short shorts and men wearing socks with sandals.  A man dressed in a pirate outfit with a bird of prey perched on his shoulder strutted passed the stalls selling donuts and buckets and spades.

As I leant against the wrought iron railings with an ice cream in one hand, and my phone in the other, I realised I hadn’t taken one photograph or looked out to sea since we’d arrived. Instead my mind had been a merry-go-round of recurring worries and Twitter feeds, Gmail and WhatsApp groups. I wasn’t taking a break at all. Trying to maintain my online life as well as my real life was evidently unrealistic at this time.

I gave my phone to Jen for the rest of the day and forced myself to tune in to my surroundings, to jump off the merry-go-round. I let myself breathe in the scents of summer: sun cream and candyfloss.  I watched the burning orb in the cloudless sky cast dappled light through the trees. I strolled along the Prom that shimmered in the hazy midday sun and ate fish and chips and dodged the dive-bombing seagulls. 

On the journey home I downsized my online life. And I know that I can do it again now.

Here are some quick tips for when you need to take a technology break.

Review your social media – mute, unfollow, disengage

Take a look at your social media accounts. Are most of your interactions positive or negative or a mix of both? Ask yourself if another argument with someone you don’t know is the best use of your time? If your timeline is a barrage of negativity that makes your hackles rise every time you log in, then it’s time to weed through your followers.

Your time is precious – say yes to people

Who hasn’t logged in to Twitter with the intention of checking their feed and replying to a few DMs, only to realise that two hours have passed? Most of those trips down the Twitter rabbit hole are a waste of your time.  Remember, when we say yes to one thing, we are saying no to another. Say yes to catching up with friends, going for a walk, or discovering a new restaurant instead.

Go for a walk – your mental health will thank you for it

Last year I took on Country Walking Magazine’s ‘Walk 1,000 miles in 2018’ challenge and let me tell you, fresh air and a change of scene had a magical effect on my mood. It doesn’t matter how far or how fast you walk, what’s important is that you move forwards.

Set phone boundaries especially before bed

I used to be useless at this but these days, come bedtime, you won’t find my phone next to my bed – only a few possessions occupy that sacred space: my current read and a notebook and pen.

Small changes like these can help you regain space to notice the little things that make you happy.  To tune in to your present. For a while you’ll have major FOMO but this will dissipate. You’ll be spending more time with family and friends, having better quality sleep, powering through your to-do list, taking the dog for another walk, finding ten minutes’ peace for a relaxing bath or maybe allowing yourself to do nothing at all! 

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