Learning to stroll, browse and potter

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‘How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives’ Annie Dillard

When did you last think about your relationship with time? Me and time? We just don’t get on. Time pressurises me, makes me tense and controls my days. Our relationship is what some might call ‘dysfunctional’. It all came to a head this week when I was out with a friend during a day-off work. We’d arranged to meet for a morning walk followed by a lunch-time bite to eat. I had anticipated being home by 2pm-ish, aiming to get on with my household jobs.

My friend, however, has an altogether different way of relating to time. She is a stroller, not a strider.  She likes to browse, not just buy and run. She potters and sometimes procrastinates. She is also the most content person I know. My friend has regular weekends away and takes several holidays a year; she nourishes her family and friends with home-cooked meals at weekends; she never misses attending her weekly wine club. On top of all this, she works almost full-time hours as a nurse.

As our morning progressed, I found myself getting twitchy as the minutes ticked away and we still hadn’t reached our lunch destination. During our walk, my friend stopped several times to respond to text messages from her family, trying to organise an evening get-together. She made several visits to the bathroom. She lingered over the plants and gifts in the shop next to the picnic site we were visiting. She drank several mugs of tea from the huge pot we shared as we sheltered indoors from the pouring rain. I was irked. Uptight. I’d never get home by 2 o’clock at this rate.

Lunch was eventually delicious. But still, my friend just wanted to call in at the supermarket on our way home. Through gritted teeth I agreed to accompany her around the aisles. Maybe, I thought, we are just not compatible. It’s rare that we spend more than a couple of hours together, usually just snatching time after work to grab a bite to eat. But then I realised that the feeling I had been having all day was very familiar- that sneaky old time pressure had crept up again.

In our Western culture, we have been trained to believe that ‘faster is better’. In my girlhood, I wrote letters to pals around the world and waited patiently for a reply. Now we are both blessed and cursed with emails and text messages, sent with the expectation of an instant reply . hourglass-1895102_1280

Our family history can also influence how we relate to time. My parents were ‘planners’, always looking to the next project or house move. Both of my parents had a very strong work ethic. Go figure. So I’ve finally picked up a book I bought years ago, always meaning to get around to reading it but never quite finding the hours. It’s called ‘Slow Time: Recovering the Natural Rhythm of Life’ by Waverley Fitzgerald. I’m planning to make it my companion on my journey to develop a more playful relationship with time. Here’s a fabulous quote to start things off:

‘Like everyone else, I lived in a house bricked up with seconds and minutes, weekends and New Year’s Days, and I never went outside until I died, because there was no other door. Now I know that I could have walked through the walls.’ – Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn.

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What makes this little gentleman so appealing?

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‘Sensory awareness’ is an exercise I sometimes suggest to my clients with long-term pain.  Persistent pain is a strong pull for the brain’s attention- whilst one part of the brain is trying to figure out where the pain is so that it can deal with it as a potential threat, another part seeks to block out the associated unpleasant sensations. This continual battle means that many people who suffer from long-term pain can find themselves becoming, understandably, less aware of pleasant sensations. Sensory awareness helps people to start noticing pleasant sensory experiences again. I invite people to write down as many things they can think of that make them smile, give them pleasure, enjoyment or comfort, categorising each experience into either their sense of sight, smell, taste, touch or hearing.

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I am often amazed by the power of this simple exercise. People start to recognise how blocking and pushing away painful sensations means that they can lose the potential to enjoy things around them. At first, many people struggle to write down even ten things in each category and are usually shocked at just how difficult it can be to think of pleasant sensory experiences after living with pain for so many years. Over time and by consciously focusing on using their senses during everyday activities, many people report experiences such as starting to really their taste food again; appreciating stroking their pets; noticing all the colours of green in their local park; hearing bird song as if for the first time.

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This exercise reminds me of how important it is to find ways to consciously use our senses everyday. We can get playful with them. The first thing I think of is my love for the feel of velvet. Maybe it stems from my 1970’s upbringing when velour, a cheap substitute for velvet, was high fashion. Not until my 20’s did I acquire anything containing the real stuff- a second-hand riding jacket with a scarlet red velvet collar. I wore it everywhere. Lately I’ve been dropping heavy hints at home about wanting to spend my leisure time reclining on a burgundy velvet sofa. Nothing has materialised as yet!

In the meantime, any mention of velvet always makes me smile. Like this description of I recently came across in a book, of moles as “the little gentlemen in velvet.”

Could there be anything more appealing?

What sights/sounds/smells /tastes and textures make you smile or bring you pleasure, enjoyment or comfort ? Are there any ways you can incorporate these into your life more regularly?

Out of the cocoon- emerging from burnout.

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As a little girl, I was fascinated by cocoons. To me, they were an endless source of curiosity. All those tightly wound fibres, moulded into oval-shaped shells, containing no light but holding all that potential within. A metamorphosing creature forming inside; emerging and moving towards the outside world only when the time was right.

Recovering from a state of physical and mental exhaustion can feel the same way. Gradually, enjoyment in everyday things starts to return. Answering the phone and making a simple meal begin feel like less of an effort again. Breakthrough happens gently, a world of meaning gradually rediscovered.

‘Cultural emergence’ is a term I came across recently to describe how we can use ‘core routines’ to create a better culture, either individual or collective. These routines can be used to help us to structure our environment in ways that are healthy and nurturing for us. The term has developed from the practice of ‘permaculture’ – a way of designing things to ensure that they are sustainable. All designs using this approach start with the inner/personal zone- the idea being that we can’t take care of anything else unless we attend to our own needs first. This is the kind of advice I regularly find myself sharing with clients I see who are living with the effects of long-term illness. However, skills in self-care and management of personal energy resources are vital in enabling us to carry on with the things in life that are meaningful and important to us all.

Here’s my selection of core routines that I’ve chosen to integrate into my life:

  • Remember interconnectedness– I have written before in Training my wild elephant to help with post-holiday blues about how everyday activities can be a great reminder of how connected we are with nature and each other. I love this example of watching a kettle boil too. Who knew that we could learn so much from seemingly mundane activities?
  • Break the rules- I bought this book Ice Cream for Breakfast by Leslie Levine years ago. I am slowly working my way through it again. It’s amazing how many rules we give ourselves in life and how inflexible our brains can become (especially as we get older!).
  • Get creative- I will be blogging about my views on creativity in mid-life in a future post. For now though, I’m enjoying revisiting stories from my childhood as mentioned in Finding solace in childish things, listening to my favourite poems like The Summer Day by Mary Oliver and attending story-telling performances of reworked fairy tales. All these things are designed to spark off my imagination and encourage a more playful attitude.

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  • Rehumanize the work environment- working in large, overcrowded institutions, factors such as space, light, comfort and privacy are often overlooked as being important factors in allowing us to maintain our wellbeing. I am making an effort to put the human touch back into my office- adding fresh plants, opening the blinds, getting rid of clutter.

What routines do you have/need to create a better culture for yourself and your world?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How can therapists get better at self-care?

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After a pause in my writing over the summer, I find myself approaching the reflective season of autumn with renewed purpose for this blog. It was partly a lack of self-care that led to me experiencing symptoms of burnout two years ago. It was my need to prevent it from happening again that encouraged me to write about living a more playful life.

Thinking back to my training as a psychologist in the 1990’s, I barely recall any mention of ‘self care’ by our tutors. Grateful as I am to have been supervised by experienced therapists during those rookie days, I realise now that many were on the brink of burnout themselves. Briefcases overflowed with dog-eared folders of patient’s notes yet to be written up; clinics were booked back to back with patients, with no time to rest or reflect in between each appointment; lunchtimes were often speedy ‘team’ trips to the pub at the behest of my boss, for a quick pint or two- time to eat was seen as a bonus.

Psychology training courses have changed in 25 years- self-care is higher up the agenda. Trainees are offered paid-for sessions of personal therapy, meetings with mentors and personal tutors. It is sad then to read statistics from a recently published survey suggesting that 46 percent of psychological therapists report themselves to be depressed and 70 percent as finding their job stressful. Burnout is as prevalent as ever.

So where do we turn for the answer? Can we rely on the only national body representing psychologists – The British Psychological Society (BPS)-to bail us out? They have offered ‘A Charter for Psychological Wellbeing and Resilience,’ asking healthcare leaders for a greater focus on support for staff wellbeing. Other, more entrepreneurial individuals, have launched Apps with enticing titles such as ‘DeStressify’, designed to offer simple solutions to tackle job-related stress and burnout. Coincidentally, I have just read in The New York Times that that App usage as a whole has stalled, due to  smartphone users hitting burnout!

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Experience tells me that strategies such as turning to a tech device or seeking the support of NHS managers for a BPS driven charter are unlikely to make a long term difference. Cultural change within the health service is desired, but some might say that as individual professionals, we have a responsibility to change our own personal culture first. In my next post I’ll be sharing some core routines that have helped me to emerge from burnout.

Training my wild elephant to help with post-holiday blues

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How do you deal with the end of the summer holidays? For me, this time of year brings the routines of home and work into sharp focus. Having got used to spending more time outdoors or dedicated to creative activities, in the house I notice my impatience in the midst of sorting socks, stacking plates, folding washing and sweeping floors. In the workplace, as someone who is used to handwriting and dealing with paper folders of patients’ notes, I’m aware of having to dig deeper to tolerate my organisation’s increased reliance on unfamiliar electronic recording and storage systems. Being prone to the winter blues, my mission to bring more playfulness into my life feels even more important as I contemplate the coming months of nights drawing in.

In his article, 6 Hacks to Create a Job You Love, Paolo Terni proposes that we turn the routines of life, the activities we find mundane, into games. I’m experimenting with this idea. How about breaking all the rules of effective time management and turning your ‘to do’ list into a lucky dip?  Or awarding yourself points for tackling those tasks you keep putting off and giving yourself a reward at the end of the week for a high score?

This idea reminded me of one of the exercises developed by Jan Chozen Bays in her book ‘How to Train a Wild Elephant and Other Adventures in Mindfulness‘. Bays suggests that we look deeply into our food- using our powerful brains to imagine where the food we eat comes from- bringing to mind all of the people involved in planting, growing, harvesting, packing and transporting that food to our plates. She advocates envisaging all of the people whose energy has contributed to the journey that food has made to reach us. In a nutshell, she wants us to notice that everything and everyone is connected and that remembering these interconnections can help us to approach everyday activities differently.

I realise that I can choose to adopt this playfully curious approach to virtually any of the routines I participate in. Even sorting socks.

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Finding solace in childish things

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It feels difficult, frivolous even, to be writing about playfulness in the midst of all the suffering we are witnessing and experiencing in the world at the moment. Finding a balance between wanting and needing to engage with what is happening- to make a difference in helping to change things for the better, versus maintaining our own resilience and sanity in the face of it all, is no mean feat.

When I started this blog, I saw that adopting a more playful attitude as I go about my day-to-day activities could be one way of boosting my own staying power to cope with life’s ups and downs. I wondered if there were others who were also making a conscious effort to do the same? I thought about the boom in sales of colouring books for adults- a seemingly childish pastime rebranded under the banner of ‘mindfulness’ as a way of helping adults deal better with stress. Focusing on one thing at a time can be soothing to the brain, but colouring books also take us back to a simpler time when all that mattered was staying in the lines and creating something pretty on a page.

There are other things from childhood that can transport us back to more carefree days. At times when I’ve felt in need of reassurance, I’ve found myself turning back to favourite books that I enjoyed reading as a child. ‘Ajax the Warrior’- the story of a brave Dingo in the Australian outback- conjures up memories of my barefooted childhood Down Under. Dr Seuss’s ‘The Cat in the Hat Came Back’ takes me straight back to many happy hours spent in my primary school library soaking up the magical words and pictures. Sometimes, the right book will make itself known at the right time. In her wonderful blog about living and loving 8 years after the death of her husband, Elaine Mansfield shared her delight in discovering the award-winning children’s book, Miss Rumphius , the story of a “Crazy Old Lady” who scattered wild lupine seeds everywhere she went in an attempt to deal with her own pain and to make the world a better place for her neighbours.

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Having poured over the amazing illustrations and simple words, this book, created for children, has become one of my new favourites. It reassures us that despite all the pain in the world, we can’t ignore the small differences we can make which, over time, can add up to really bold steps leading to the creation of a more healing, kindly and peaceful environment in which we can co-exist.

What seeds have you sown today to make the world a more beautiful place? What books or activities from childhood can you rediscover to bring you a sense of comfort and solace in times of need?

Playing together, understanding each other.

Our local community are currently hosting a group of children from Belarus. The Russian-speaking 7-12 year olds come from an area that continues to be contaminated by the fallout from Chernobyl in 1986. They live each day with the social and environmental consequences of that disaster, including compromised health. The host families provide good food, clean water, plenty of rest and fun activities for a month, with the hope that the children return home stronger and healthier than when they arrived.

Last weekend was the first group get together at the home of one of the hosts. Outdoors, football and frisbee were the choices of the boys in the group, whilst the girls stayed indoors crafting bracelets and colouring. The adults looked on, sipping cups of tea and exchanging experiences of hosting to date. Late in the afternoon, one of the hosts announced that we were all to play the ‘ring on a string’ game. We gathered in the middle of the room- 8 adults including two Belarusian interpreters, English and Belarusian children, standing in a big circle, gripping onto a piece of string around which we surreptitiously passed a silver ring. One person placed themselves in the middle of the circle, with the aim of trying to spot which person had the ring in their hand. We laughed, we teased. We jostled. We had fun.

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Play researchers have discovered that games help to build trust between groups. Play has the power to help us feel safer together and to heal rifts. Some people we know have frowned on the idea of us hosting a child from abroad. They have suggested that we would be better off directing our energies towards helping needy children in our own country. They may have a point, but my view is that the more we can do to encourage activities that engender trust and reduce fear between members of different cultures, the better we will all be for it in the long-term. 

Playing together gives us a universal language that emphasises only the similarities between us rather than the differences.