On the first day of the Olympics, I wrote a post about the grand, sweeping narratives playing out on TV. Since then I’ve been blown away by some of the stories that have emerged - not only of individual and team achievements but also the tragic yet inspiring tales of some of the medallists.
I watched yesterday as British judoka Gemma Gibbons fought her way to the final of her competition, beating higher-ranked opponents and exceeding all expectations to win a silver medal. On the way to the final she looked to the sky and said: “Love you, Mum.”
Sadly her mum wasn’t watching from the top of the stands. Six years ago, single mum Jeanette died of leukaemia at just 49. A bone marrow transplant from her twin brother seemed to have provided a cure only for her to succumb to an infection.
Gemma then vowed to aim at gold in tribute to her greatest supporter. Jeanette had started taking her daughter to judo at the age of six and spent any spare cash she had on classes.
Gemma knew that getting to London 2012 would have meant the world to Jeanette. And, in true hero’s journey fashion, she ended up winning Britain’s first judo silver for 12 years.
The woman who beat Gemma to gold - Kayla Harrison - was driven by an equally painful experience. Not too long ago, the 22-year-old from Ohio contemplated suicide after years of sexual abuse from her judo coach.
She suffered in silence for three years until she summoned the courage to expose him, then confront him in court. He was sentenced to 10 years but Kayla had to rebuild her life, fight the taboo of being an abuse victim and learn to love and trust again.
Kayla found a new father-and-son coaching team who brought her back from the brink. Now she says her experience has made her one of the most fearless, mentally tough competitors in her sport. She has, literally, found the gold in one of life’s darkest experiences.
“I hope that, by coming out with my story, my past will help people’s futures,” she says. “That little boy or little girl. I want them to know it’s OK to come out and talk about it and find there’s help.”
Both women triumphed by fighting their demons.
We can’t all win Olympic gold but we can always find the gold in our personal stories. We all have unique tales to tell about what forged us in the fires of life. If you’re reading this, you are a survivor - and you have stories to tell. And you don’t have to be an elite athlete to go on a hero’s - or heroine’s - journey of your own.
I have spent the past two days reflecting on the power of story and why storytelling is currently enjoying a renaissance. Why now? Because in an age of instant messaging, social media and 24/7 news feeds we still crave stories to give us meaning amidst an unfathomable sea of information.
As I continue my inquiry, I’ve been watching the build-up to the start of the Olympics and realising that the Torch Relay - which has exceeded all expectations in terms of public engagement and attendance - was almost certainly a big success because it was such an inspiring narrative in which all the participants were the heroes, each with their own extraordinary personal story to tell.
The headline narrative was “your moment to shine” and each torchbearer not only played their part in this story amazingly well but most of them seemed to find the experience incredibly meaningful and sometimes life-changing.
It also seemed to touch everyone who witnessed the unfolding story, giving people all over the country the chance to become part of something greater than themselves, to celebrate what it means to be British as well as the hope symbolised by the eternal flame.
Stories and rituals give us hope, comfort, understanding and a way to figure out our place in the world. And the story of London 2012 gives us a chance to redefine what it means to be British, what we do best.
That was giving a huge boost by Danny Boyle’s playful, inventive, eccentric and creative opening ceremony, a chaotic and colourful celebration of our cultural DNA that wove together several powerful narratives that spoke to soul of the nation. I lost count of the number of tweets I read last night that said “I feel proud to be British”.
The lighting of the spectacular petalled cauldron in the stadium - a responsibility handled by seven young sporting talents - and the climactic symbolism of the peaceful coming together of nations was a moment of poignant beauty that reinforced the message of hope for the future, something we sorely need right now.
In the first full day of competition, I’ve noticed that the BBC have peppered their broadcast with filmed segments telling the personal stories of British Olympians past and present. These tales of courage, determination and sacrifice are what the Olympics are all about, and what gives them meaning beyond the dizzying amount of media coverage.
Among all this virtual reality, stories reintroduce intimacy and emotion to communication. And that, at a basic human level, is what we crave.
(Source: pearlwithin.co.uk )
A week ago I made a commitment to having fun, so I thought I’d report back on how well I’ve done - not that it was a competition or anything as serious as that.
Before I went away, it was cold and wet. Now I am sitting at my window and looking out at a cloudless blue sky. And I think we would all agree that it’s a lot easier to be joyful when the sun is shining.
But back to my top 10 fun activities. How many boxes did I tick? Well, I certainly enjoyed fine food and great company as I was on a cruise with mostly Aussies and Kiwis, who know how to kick back and relax.
I spent plenty of time walking in nature - by a river (the Danube) rather than the sea, but that’s just as much fun.
I visited Vienna and Budapest - two handsome, historic European capitals that I’ve never been to before.
I spent the weekend on my return doing whatever I wanted. I did a bit of dancing to a Sixties compilation and spent time with a special person who really makes me laugh.
So I did pretty well in terms of my top-rating happiness-generating things to do. All I need to complete the set is to have a massage, meet up with friends and do some random painting!
The result of all this enjoyment is that, despite the challenges of my current life situation, I am at peace within myself and have reconnected with the joy of being alive.
Yesterday I was in a charity shop browsing the secondhand books and came across a copy of Loving What Is by Byron Katie. I used to have a copy of this book but gave it to a friend to read and never got it back. So I bought it and reacquainted myself with The Work - four questions that can change your life.
And I remembered something I already knew but had forgotten while I had become lost in a bad dream. “Suffering is optional,” says Katie in the book. “When we believe our thoughts instead of what is really true for us, we experience the kinds of emotional distress that we call suffering. Suffering is a natural alarm, warning us that we’re attaching to a thought.”
I had attached myself to a series of thoughts that were producing considerable emotional pain, and it took the rigorous honesty of a good friend and teacher of mine to hold up a mirror and show me what I had been doing to myself.
However, it also helped reading Katie’s advice that: “You are the teacher you’ve been waiting for. You are the one who can end your own suffering.”
And, as I’ve discovered in the past week, having fun is a pretty good way of nipping suffering in the bud - certainly self-imposed suffering. It doesn’t take away the genuine emotions that arise when you’re faced with change you didn’t expect or want, but in my experience fun breeds joy and gratitude.
In one week I’ve gone from inner and outer greyness and rain clouds to inner and outer sunshine and blue sky. And life goes on…
(Source: pearlwithin.co.uk )
Today I am giving myself full permission to have some fun. In the past month or so I’ve done plenty of bread-and-butter work, coaching, workshops and mountains of brow-furrowing self-reflection but I certainly haven’t had much of the f stuff.
When life whacks you round the head with a challenge you tend to forget about such frivolity. But I’ve realised that not only is it possible to have fun while times are tough - it’s essential for your wellbeing.
When I say fun, I don’t mean going out and drinking lots of alcohol - for me, those days are gone. But socialising with like-minded souls is a lot of fun, and I can do that without a glass of wine.
I realise that when I’m going through an intense phase of my life, I start to lose touch with what fun means to me. Even when I’m not working I don’t really relax, I’m always reading self-help books or planning my next blog.
So what constitutes fun for me? Let’s see if I can make a top 10.
1. Enjoying fine food and great company.
2. Walking in nature - especially by the sea.
3. Visiting a city or country I’ve never been to before.
4. Pampering myself - having a massage or a treatment.
5. Having a cosy day in and doing whatever I want - reading a good book, watching a film, listening to music or just sleeping.
6. Dancing freely to great music.
7. Spending time with people who really make me laugh.
8. Painting or drawing, even though I can’t really paint or draw properly.
9. Sitting in the park in the sunshine on a weekday.
10. Visiting friends I don’t see too often.
I feel embarrassed to admit I struggled to make a list of 10. That goes to show how little I’ve valued fun in my life lately. I am committed to rectifying this, though. In fact, I’m ticking a couple of boxes this week as I’m flying to Vienna and taking a river cruise to Budapest. I’ve never been to either city before and I’ll definitely be enjoying some fine food - and probably great company as well. Even better - I’m not paying for any of it because I’m a journalist and I’m writing an article about it (one of the perks of the job).
When I return home I’ll be much more conscious of fulfilling my fun quota. I hesitate to say I’ll make an effort to have fun because it wouldn’t be fun then. I open up to the possibility of having fun I can’t imagine, and fun that’s unexpected.
Hell, I might even end up thinking the Olympics are fun. Who knows? While it’s raining and skies are grey it seems harder to have fun. But perhaps fun can effect change just as much as the tough stuff. Let’s play with it and see what happens.
Are you getting enough fun in your life? I’m serious…
In the work I do as a human potential coach I often talk to clients about creating a space in which they feel safe enough to explore their thoughts, emotions, intuitions and behaviours. And it got me thinking about how important it is for each of us to have a safe space in which we can rest, rejuvenate, ponder and simply be.
For some, this is an outer space - not in the cosmos, but a particular room in your home, a place of worship, a meditation area or maybe even a garden shed. For others - and I include myself in this category - it is an inner space, a place we can retreat to within that allows us to feel nurtured and protected.
The benefit of creating a protected inner space is that it’s easier to keep it safe. If you have an outer safe space, other people’s energy can interfere with it.
I created a safe space with my partner which functioned beautifully for a long time but when our priorities shifted, that space was no longer safe for me. I learnt a lot from that experience, and henceforth I will always create my own rather than have a shared space that depends on the energetic participation of another person.
There are lots of fantastic creative visualisation techniques that you can use to protect yourself and your energy field - they’re easy to find anywhere on the internet. But creating your own bespoke safe space within is not something you can be guided through by anyone else.
Mine came to me quite naturally when I was resting in bed one morning, and when I bring it to mind even now it makes me tingle. It’s a giant, white hermetically-sealed egg with walls that are made of a translucent, stretchy, gas-permeable material like rubber. On the floor of the egg is a white faux-fur rug, the type that is gentle and soft and never scratchy.
The top of the egg is about 30ft above the ground and the thin membrane allows in plenty of light. I can wrap myself in the faux-fur, gambol around like a lamb and bounce off the inner walls feeling joyous, free and protected.
The whiteness of it is dazzling - so much so that I’m surprised the Dulux dog isn’t here. I’m surprised by the whiteness of the egg because in the real world I never wear white. I’d never have white walls, white rugs or white sofas. To me white is the preserve of the wealthy because to keep white bright you have to employ people to keep it that way.
But there it is - the egg house is white and happily there is no chance that I’m going to get it dirty because it’s sealed off from grime and I am squeaky-clean, sparkling and baby-soft within it.
It’s not much of a stretch to work out that this is a pretty womb-like structure I’ve invented here but it does have a sci-fi feel to it that adds to the attraction. Every time I visualise myself in there, I find a new gadget. It’s all a bit like Barbarella’s spaceship.
I had a lot of fun creating my safe inner space. Yours will look and feel very different but just allow yourself to play with all the possibilities. No one else has to know what shape it is, where it is, what it’s made of or what’s in it - it’s your secret.
The most important thing is that you can transport yourself there in your imagination during those times when outer space seems threatening and unsupportive. Mine is a brilliant white sci-fi egg. What’s yours?
I’m a writer, OK? I’ve been a professional writer for more than 30 years. That’s what I do - I write. That’s how I communicate. That’s how I spread my ideas. That’s how I can show up without showing off. But guess what? I also have a voice. Not a voice that hides behind words, but a proper voice that makes sounds and everything…
Before I was a writer, I sang: a semi-professional backing singer in a band with a bunch of mates. I loved singing, performing, using my voice to entertain and uplift. But then I gave up the voice and took up the pen.
The singing became a private pleasure (not for public consumption) while the fumbling scribbler became a publisher writer - in a magazine called Sounds. Oh, the irony… Later, I would write for Noise! - HOW LOUD WAS THAT?! - but my words didn’t make a sound.
I became increasingly muffled after that, hiding out in the background - as a manager, commissioner, a quoter of the famous and the would-be famous, a fixer of other people’s words, an invisible mender. It was quiet, painstaking work performed behind the scenes - never centre-stage.
Finding my voice
And still the voice remained in its box. Only a year ago - well into my mid-50s - did I feel a longing to sing again. I joined a choir, and it was a joy - for a while. But the longing remained.
I thought no more of it until I qualified as a human potential coach and joined Inspired Entrepreneur, a community of like-minded souls in search of the work they were born to do. Here was a group in which I felt able to speak my truth. And I thought that was it: my voice would be heard within the community.
Then it dawned on me that I longed for a wider audience. That I might have something worth saying, something that people wanted to hear. And one day, I attended a talk given by Sarah Lloyd-Hughes of Ginger Training & Coaching called Speak Like a TED Talker. Speak like a TED talker? That was setting the bar high.
I’ve had a love affair with TED for a few years now; the best TED talks - my favourites are by Jill Bolte-Taylor and Brene Brown - have stayed with me, resonating like a temple bell. If only I could speak with such authenticity, vulnerability and power - the sort of power that touches millions.
Sarah’s enthusiasm, energy and expertise encouraged me to believe it might be possible. Well, at least to touch up to a hundred. And at the end of the evening, I pushed through my resistance to make the short walk from seat to spotlight.
I stood up and spoke in front of an audience for a few minutes about a subject close to my heart: how I have been a performer all my life, but never my true self. Until that moment. And then the tears flowed.
Pump up the volume
I’d found this little voice and I wanted to make it louder. So I grabbed my inner bull by the horns and booked on to Sarah’s three-day Speak Like a TED Talker workshop. Every member of the group had to wear a badge that proclaimed: Future TED speaker. Wow. That pumped up the volume.
And this wasn’t just about learning how to speak in public. This was about crafting The Talk of Your Life: the one message you feel compelled to share with the world. So that if you died after you’d given the talk, at least your soul had been able to sing - for 18 minutes, anyway.
We all came in with a pretty good idea of what we wanted to speak about. But once we’d initiated the process of searching for our diamond, setting it in platinum, making it shine, learning memory techniques so we could speak without notes and stepping into our boots of power, many of us were plunged into confusion and uncertainty.
Where was this diamond? Why was it hiding?
By the end of the second day I had spent hours poring over the structure of The Talk of My Life - finding key moments, building the action to a climax, formulating a suitable open and close - but by the morning of the third day I had completely changed my mind about what I wanted to say.
What was this talk that wanted to emerge like a sculpture from a block of marble? What was this message that could only be spoken, not written?
Funny, really - because it’s about silence. Or, more specifically, it’s about suffering in silence. Because I would like to live in a world where everyone feels safe enough to express their emotions, enter their pain, speak their truth and sing their soul.
I stood up and gave an edited version of my talk while the other members of the group came up with a name that they felt reflected me and my message. Henceforth I was known as Compassionate Ninja.
I don’t have a catchy, TED-style title for my talk - which is odd, because a journalist’s instinct is to come up with a headline. And I’m still incubating the egg which will hopefully hatch a diamond, if the metaphor isn’t too mixed.
But what I do know is this: I have spent far too much of my life suffering in silence. And if I can help just one other person tell a new story about themselves, one that is big, bold, noisy and true - then it will all have been worthwhile.
I’m still a writer, but now I’m a writer who speaks. Like a TED talker. I like the sound of that.
There’s no getting away from the fact that I was a shy child. All through my school years my reports praised my conscientiousness and good standard of work but repeatedly criticised me for not speaking up.
A typical comment was: “Beverley is a quiet girl who would benefit from participating more in class discussions.” My teachers didn’t seem to consider my shyness might be a factor in this, or create an atmosphere that might encourage less voluble girls such as myself to share their thoughts.
So even now, in groups, I’m unlikely to be the one who puts her hand up first, and I often hang back and wait a while before saying anything. Give me a pen, though, and it’s a different story.
I enjoyed English composition and often had my essays read out to the class in primary school. I thought it a shame that in grammar school we rarely had a chance to do any creative writing but never lost my ability to express myself well on paper.
That particular talent lay dormant during my teenage years and was resurrected when I started work as a secretary to the editor of a music magazine. My first real relationship was with a writer for the magazine, who used to take me with him to the gigs he was reviewing.
We would always have a post-gig analysis which would then inform his reviews. Then, one day, when he deemed himself too busy to write a particular review, he asked me if I’d do it instead.
After some protesting about how I couldn’t do it, he told me I could, and I did. And to my astonishment, the editor published my review.
This is how my journalistic career began, and after a year of practice I was appointed to the staff of the magazine as a feature writer. The quiet girl had been given permission to be loud - but only in print.
I’ve been a writer of one sort or another ever since and now, 32 years after those first uncertain steps into print, writing has become my spiritual practice.
I’ve just started reading a book called Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott, subtitled Some Instructions on Writing and Life, and these words in her introduction really resonated with me: “Seeing yourself in print is such an amazing concept: you can get so much attention without having to actually show up somewhere… Writers, who tend to be shy, get to stay home and still be public.”
She goes on to say that the thrill of seeing oneself in print is a sort of primal verification - you are in print, therefore you exist. You appear outside yourself.
I understand this thrill. Especially if I’m particularly proud of a piece of writing and/or it generates positive feedback from readers. I write, therefore I am.
And in these days of citizen journalism, of the blogosphere, it is easier than ever to see yourself in print - albeit virtual print. Even if you don’t publish your work, if you simply write in a diary or journal, there is something powerfully healing in appearing outside yourself. Especially for a shy child.
I learnt a big lesson about pain and suffering this week. Pain - both physical and emotional - is unavoidable in life, because we have a body. Emotional pain - in the form of sadness, grief, fear, anger or a messy combination of all these darker feelings - is damned uncomfortable but it’s actually nothing to be afraid of.
If you are prepared to turn towards the pain with great compassion, to explore its contours and textures, tastes and smells, its hills and valleys - what you’ll find is not more pain but more of who you really are.
But what often happens when you’re in pain is that you start telling yourself a story about how unbearable and devastating it is, and it turns into suffering. If you get stuck in suffering you separate yourself from the pain you don’t want to feel and it doesn’t shift. You perpetuate the pain and if you’re really clever with the story, it starts to become part of your identity: “I hurt, therefore I am.”
I can talk about this with great authority because I got stuck in a suffering story for years and years. In fact, the same script hijacked me last week and it took a random (if there is such a thing as random) glance at A Course In Miracles to help me see through the story.
Since then the pain has gone. It might come back, but if it does I’ll dive into it and out the other side. I know I’m on the right track with this because of a wonderful synchronicity. In the midst of all this I received a newsletter from Robert Augustus Masters, author of the brilliant book Spiritual Bypassing. Its title: Pain Versus Suffering.
In his view, pain is just unpleasant sensation. Suffering is something we are doing with our pain. It is a choice. Suffering can be overwhelming - but it is optional. Suffering is a way of dramatising our pain, making a gripping story out of it.
So far from bringing us closer to our pain, suffering keeps us from the naked reality of our pain: we’re too busy telling a victim story about it. As Masters says, the healing of pain is in pain itself.
“And there, in that place of hurt, we meet not more hurt, but more us. More healing, more peace, more welcome.”
Here endeth my lesson: not in pain, but in release.
As I was sitting at home this morning, gazing at my bookshelves, my eyes fixed on the distinctive blue and gold spine of A Course In Miracles. After a minute or so, I felt moved to pick it up and open it at a random page.
It fell open at Lesson 152. The opening paragraph reads as follows: “The power of decision is my own. I cannot suffer loss unless it is my own decision. I cannot suffer pain except my choice elects this state for me. I cannot grieve nor fear nor think I am sick unless these are the outcomes that I want.”
I love the way books reveal their wisdom in this way - every time I’ve done this the page has contained a nugget of gold with which I totally resonate. Right here, right now, I am in pain. So the idea that it is my decision to feel this way is liberating. Because if that is the case, I can choose not to feel pain.
Although this concept is hard to cling on to when a wave of emotion hits and threatens to overwhelm, it really is a life-saver. Here comes the pain again - feel it and let it pass without clinging on to it.
Some of the leaders in the field of self-awareness and personal development whom I admire the most - including Robert Holden and Nick Williams - actively study A Course In Miracles.
Wikipedia describes this hefty tome as “a self-study curriculum that aims to assist its readers in achieving spiritual transformation” that includes lessons about applying the practice of forgiveness in one’s daily life.
And if there’s one thing I need to learn at the moment that is it: to forgive myself and the imagined cause of my pain. I say imagined, because no one can cause me pain unless they inflict a physical wound. It’s my choice to feel emotional pain. If I believe I am nursing a wound that will not heal, then that is my reality.
The power of decision is my own.