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I was tempted to leave this paragraph blank! For whilst it seems that wisdom may be acquired as one lives through life experiences, I often feel that the longer I live the less I know. Perhaps I am confusing knowledge with certainty. Maybe it is not that I know less, more that the certainty of youth is replaced by a wider understanding that life is complicated and there are many possibilities and alternatives.

Richard Osman, the quiz master on Pointless (my favourite TV quiz it has to be said) when talking about this issue, said “In life, you’re like a rocket. For the first 35 or 40 years you’re being fired up into the air, and whatever your fuel was – ambition, money – you’re burning it up to get the rocket higher. But then at some point you fall to earth again.”

This I can relate to. I am very much on earth, at base camp and truly exploring that ground. And here, amongst the foothills is a thought that is slowly coalescing into a truth. There is but one guiding principle that determines what it is all about. It’s all about love or fear.

Love and Fear

Love and fear are the two main emotions that we are capable of experiencing. Every other emotion is a sub set of either one of the two. Not only are they polar opposites they are each also linked to one key hormone that regulates our body. Fear produces cortisol and is part of the fight/flight response. It is the hormone that helps our body facilitate a rapid response to danger. Unfortunately, our modern lifestyles and culture have created circumstances where it is a response to stress, rather than danger that is the primary reason for the hormone’s production.

Love, on the other hand produces oxytocin, which is our body’s natural antidote to stress and the effects of cortisol. If this area is of interest to you take a look at this article which identifies clearly the effects of lifestyle and hormone and ultimately love and fear.

Back in the foothills of understanding; it’s all well and good understanding something, it’s in the living of it where the challenge lies. This is where mindfulness can help. By practicing mindfulness we can become closer to our emotional experience. Living in the present moment, noticing what is happening in our mind and body provides us with the opportunity to identify whether it is from love or fear that we are living.

The Present Moment

Writing this has achieved two things. Firstly, it has brought me into this present moment. I have realised that fear is always part of my experience and runs right through all aspects of my life. Secondly, this realisation has reminded me of the new understanding I am developing of fear; how it shapes our behaviour and how I can change this.

New learning takes a while to assimilate and behaviours take practice and time to change. I have re-visited my earlier post on Fear and will be listening to Tara Brach’s talks again about moving beyond the fear body. If you have not listened to them yet and if any aspect of what I have written resonates with you then I recommend them to you. If time is tight then just listen to the second talk as it summarises the first talk and recommends two approaches to dealing with the fear. The second of these explains how love is the antidote and how we can compassionately support our experience to change our fearful reaction.

Photography and love

In my Online Mindful Photography Course I explore more of this territory. I find it particularly interesting to explore and develop love through photography. ‘How can you do that?’ you ask. Here are four ideas that you can use as a basis for a Mindful Photography Practice on Love.

  1. Allocate a significant period of time (several weeks would be great!) where you only create photos of a loved one. This is inspired by Eric Kim’s Cindy Project – do take a look at the link as Eric explains why you should do this project. Obviously, they will need to be comfortable with the idea, but perhaps if you explain that you are exploring your love for them, they will be comfortable and even excited!
  2. Visit a location or place that you love, in the weather that most inspires you, and create a set of 10 photos that best represent what you love about the place.
  3. Choose a photographer who’s work you love. Study their work. Consider their style, their subject matter, their POV, their lens choice. Produce a set of 10 photos as an homage to their work.
  4. Create a small set of photos (or just one if it’s too challenging) that illustrates what you love about yourself.

Do let me know if you try any of these and I always welcome examples of your work to share here. The photos that I have used to illustrate this post are from a set of photos I call ‘Promenaders’ and were created after being inspired to try a de-focused 50mm lens on a wide aperture. I just love the abstract cartoon like effect created.

 

 

 

The following post is a personal summary of the wisdom, inspiration and guidance provided by Tara Brach (meditation teacher, psychologist and author) in her two talks called ‘Beyond the Fear Body’. Links to both talks are provided below and I encourage you to spare 50 minutes per talk to fully appreciate the depth of understanding Tara Brach has regarding the role fear plays in our lives. Direct quotes from the talks are identified and the rest is primarily a summary of her guidance.

Beyond the Fear Body 1                 Beyond the Fear Body 2

Why concern ourselves with fear?

If we look at the difficult aspects of our lives, in the shadows we will find fear. Underneath the emotions we will often find fear. We can sense it. Sometimes it is sharp, sometimes a background hum, sometimes a restlessness. There is no way to come home to our wholeness, to love ourselves fully in this world without befriending the background agitation, the fear.

Fear is a dominant driver in our life. Fear + resistance (to the fear) = suffering

But how do we change our relationship with fear? How do we move from acting out in familiar ways and habitual behaviours, to wisdom and compassion. Instead of running from our fears how can we learn to turn towards, to lean in, to what we are running from? How can we find our way to presence and embrace the life that is right here?

What is fear?

Fear is our anticipation of loss. Loss of our health, job, esteem, person, control of our life, life itself. Fear is an evolutionary habit, it is nature’s protector. The oldest parts of our mind (the limbic system) provide the fight/flight response that is designed to enable us to function at our physical and mental peak, in order to save our threatened lives.

Fear turns to suffering when it oversteps. When there is a repeated perceived threat and it is not processed. Fear then locks in and the sympathetic nervous system locks in. Our bodies’ response is named by Eckhart Tolle the ‘Fear Body’ and is made up of the physical response (flight/fight response, leading to a developing bodily tension, tightening in the body, causing blockages) and our thoughts (worry, planning, controlling, obsessing, imagining) which combined dictate our behaviour.

Our behaviours in this response are to not look for what is wrong, but to distract ourselves, to try to diminish the feeling of fear. We may look to distract ourselves from fear by eating, drinking, doing things, pouncing on others or withdrawing. This ‘Fear Body’ state could almost be called a trance. The limbic system has hijacked our access to another part of our mind, the frontal lobe. This is the part that provides our capacity to be present in the moment, to notice what is happening and be mindful.

How does fear make us feel and behave?

Fear catches us in something smaller than we are. Sometimes called ‘the big squeeze’, fear squeezes out our capacity to be present and loving as part of something bigger. Instead we are locked into the smaller part of ourselves, our egoic self. Everything is centered around that limited self perception, we lose living moments and are hooked into a re-activity.

Fear drives our addictions. It brings us into conflict with ourselves and others. We become more controlling and more manipulative, as we try to bend the world to our will. Deep into this process we become less intelligent, act stupidly, our creativity is limited, we loose spontaneity and our hearts close.

In our wider society the affect of unprocessed fear on a collective level is the cause of war. When we are afraid we get violent, self protective. We try to gain control and assign blame. We manipulate this by explaining how something is wrong with the ‘other’ (the other being because of difference: race, religion, city, club etc). We don’t find it so hard to be violent to the ‘other’, they don’t feel real or connected to us. We are not connected to their suffering.

Our intention has to be to evolve from this re-activity. To move beyond the fear body to ‘attend and befriend’ the fear.

How do we evolve from re-activity?

How can we learn to attend to and befriend the fear? How can we inhabit the motivation to hang out with fear?

There are two key inter connected pathways: Direct Presence and Train the Mind

1) Direct Presence

Direct presence is being completely here now. However, being completely in the moment when confronted by rising emotion, fueled by fear, is not always possible. Fortunately, there are cues we can follow to raise our awareness that we have moved into the fear body. Firstly we can note our physical symptoms: these tend to be in throat, chest or belly. We can investigate gently, with curiosity not judgment. Secondly, listen to the mind. What thoughts are present? Where do they take you?

Now we need to train the mind to be able to come totally into the present moment and to connect.

2) Train the Mind

Our intention is to “redirect our attention in ways that build some of our strengths in what we love, so that we can be with our fear”. We remember that we are connected by love to a whole world. We remember our strengths. We find access to a positive mental state. How do we do this? We need to change our habits, to train our attention to go where we want it to. We don’t have to use the familiar neural pathways. We need to forge new pathways, new ways of thinking.

I often liken our habitual thoughts to being the motorways of our mind. Re-training the mind to think differently means forging new off road tracks. As Tara says,

“We can train our attention to have a different experience. ‘Neurons that fire together wire together.’ If you consistently learn to pay attention a certain way, a way that reminds you that love is here, even when you feel scared…..then every time fear is triggered you get a little more access to remembering that, you get a little more space to be with the fear. Where the attention goes, energy flows.”

So, in the midst of noticing the Fear Body ground yourself. Feel the gravity: your feet on the floor, your bum on the seat. Slow your breath, breathe deeper. Put a hand on your belly or heart, breathe. Remind yourself that you are part of the whole. Reach out to wholeness. No matter what you call it (Jesus, Buddha, higher self, Gaia, God, soul, universal energy – everything in the universe is made of the same stuff). Can you accept that the fear is here and soften?

“Our path is to meet our edge and soften” Chögyam Trungpa

Fear is the path. Fear is the practice. Fear is a portal

Read how Tara Brach met her edge and softened here

The Photos

The photos accompanying this post were created in response to a personal fear. The location, lighting, composition and black and white conversion were partly planned and partly instinctive once on location.

 

Lately, I have been very interested in the role that fear plays in our lives. My most recent post on the topic explored fear as an opportunity and how it can be a practice for our life. In a similar vein I have recently come across this TED talk below by author Karen Thompson-Walker ‘What fear can teach us’, that looks at the link between fear and the imagination.

The talk provides plenty of links between fear and the process of creation and as such underpins the experience I have followed in using my fears to inspire my photography.

It is an 11 minute talk and is sure to fire your imagination.

Over the last six months I have written several posts that have explored the theme of fear. Each time my motivation for looking at this area was spurred by personal experience, in particular living through a very difficult health period. It is difficult enough to experience the challenging events in our life, but then to also consider that our behaviours that surround the event may be underpinned by fear is maybe a challenge too far. But it is in this arena that there is space for the greatest personal understanding and growth.

One of the thoughts I was often drawn to was that the fear we experience is a fantastic opportunity. Does this sound ridiculous? After all we do not want to feel fearful, do we? But how would it we be if we explored what was underneath the fear? What would it reveal? How would that enrich our life experience?

Yesterday, I had a consultation with a friend who is a homeopath. Rita is an old friend of many years, who I find it very easy to talk to. In the course of a few consultations, over the last few months, we have been exploring my current health challenges and the path that has led me to this point.

Our discussion yesterday started with the major changes that have manifested in my life in the last month: a diagnosis for my breathing condition and the decision for Beci and I to separate. Both of these changes have provided the ground for some big decisions and it is clear that I am at a particular crossroads in my life. After some discussion around how I felt about these changes, including the fears I had regarding the potential decisions that are impending, we returned to discussing my life choices that had led to the beginnings of my health condition, some 10 years ago.

I talked about the drive and desire to succeed that underpinned my attitude and commitment to my work and my running. At the time I was working at Swansea College as a senior manager and had secured a new management position in a re-organised college led by the new Principal. I was very keen to be successful and to be seen to be ambitious. At the same time I had committed to a thorough, and slightly obsessive, training schedule to run in marathons and other long distance races.

This driven and success orientated attitude to life was ‘normal’ consequence of the evolving culture of the time. You could say that I was simply immersed in the Zeitgeist. Alternatively, you might ask, (as Rita did) what was really fueling this behaviour? The answer came instinctively: fear. My desire to be brilliant at my new job, to be seen to be a committed and influential manager was fired by a fear of not being good enough, of having to prove that I was a talented and successful senior college manager.

Similarly, my commitment to a campaign of long distance races with incremental time and distance improvements was underpinned by exactly the same fears. I needed to be seen (by myself and others) as being good, and getting better at long distance running. There was also more to it; an element of challenging the effects of ageing was certainly present.

Mid-life often means we no longer play team sport and we may become seduced by the idea that keeping fit can be achieved through a programme of distance running. And this is of course true. But, there is also more going on. By striving to keep fit we are also trying to keep ageing at bay: or perhaps we could say that we are fearful of getting old and ultimately, dying.

Fear as the practice

The realisation that fear drove my behaviour over 10 years ago is not that much of a surprise, but it is only now that I see that it is an ongoing feature of life. Wherever I am, whatever I am doing in the background, like the hum of a radio, is fear. Understanding what each fear is, that is directing our behaviour, is the opportunity, the practice.

How can we learn to attend to and befriend the fear? How can we inhabit the motivation to hang out with fear?

There are two key inter connected practices: Present moment awareness and Training the mind

1) Present moment awareness

Present moment awareness is being completely here now. However, being completely in the moment when confronted by rising emotion, fueled by fear, is not always possible. Fortunately, there are cues we can follow to raise our awareness that we have moved into fear. Firstly we can note our physical symptoms: these tend to be in throat, chest or belly. We can investigate gently, with curiosity not judgment. Secondly, we can listen to the mind. What thoughts are present? Where do they take us?

Now we need to train the mind to be able to come totally into the present moment and to connect.

2) Training the mind

Our intention is to “redirect our attention in ways that build some of our strengths in what we love, so that we can be with our fear“. We remember that we are connected by love to a whole world. We remember our strengths. We find access to a positive mental state. How do we do this? We need to change our habits, to train our attention to go where we want it to. We don’t have to use the familiar neural pathways. We need to forge new pathways, new ways of thinking.

I often liken our habitual thoughts to being the motorways of our mind. Re-training the mind to think differently means forging new off road tracks. As Tara Brach says,

“We can train our attention to have a different experience. ‘Neurons that fire together wire together.’ If you consistently learn to pay attention a certain way, a way that reminds you that love is here, even when you feel scared…..then every time fear is triggered you get a little more access to remembering that, you get a little more space to be with the fear. Where the attention goes, energy flows.”

So, in the midst of noticing the fear ground yourself. Feel the gravity: your feet on the floor, your bum on the seat. Slow your breath, breathe deeper. Put a hand on your belly or heart. Breathe. Remind yourself that you are part of the whole. Reach out to wholeness. No matter what you call it (Jesus, Buddha, higher self, Gaia, God, soul, universal energy – everything in the universe is made of the same stuff). Can you accept that the fear is here and soften?

“Our path is to meet our edge and soften” Chögyam Trungpa

 

Many of our reactions to life, our choices and our behaviours are generated by fear. The fear could be fear of not being good enough, fear of failure, fear of a thing, fear of an event, fear of a decision and many more. Fear is the gift of our ego. Fear is the furnace that burns deep in our breast fueling thoughts that we are separate and precious and deserve more.

Fear creates stress and as I have discussed in my previous post stress generates a physical response in our body: the fight or flight response. This response sets us up to function at our highest physical level (to run away) but if the stress is an ongoing one a whole other debilitating set of body and mind responses may be set in motion.

So how can we support ourselves in a stressful situation? Can mindfulness help? And if so, how?

Fear Arising

This week had at its mid point an event that felt like the end of a chapter. My chronic larynx condition has deteriorated over the last few months and has been particularly challenging recently. This has resulted in more steroids than my body has liked and many visits to health professionals. Not having enough breath has been debiliating and the improvements bought by steroids have been short term and have not improved the underlying situation.

During this period I have been coming to terms with the idea that my quality of life can only be improved by some surgical intervention. I have for nearly ten years resisted the medical fraternity’s desire to perform a tracheostomy on me. The operation, whilst a life saver when your airway is blocked, has always seemed a barbaric solution to my problem.

However, the recent worsening of my breathing has led me to believe that it could bring an improvement to the quality of my life. Not getting enough air slows everything down, lowers my energy, makes me old before my time. My consultant at Swansea’s Singleton Hospital has often suggested the operation, but recently he asked if I would like a second opinion from Mr Sandhu. This surgeon heads up the top larynx reconstruction team in Europe and is based in Charing Cross Hospital, London.

The appointment to see Mr Sandhu was on Wednesday this week. As soon as it came through it felt like it would be the confirmation of my fears. That I would need a tracheostomy and I would have to learn to deal with the implications. Of course I hoped that there might be other possibilities that weren’t so draconian, but mostly what I felt was nervous and fearful.

IMG_2478

Mindfulness in action

I was fortunate that the lovely Rebecca went to London with me. Her love, support and determination to get the highest quality medical help have been an essential element of coping with the situation. We traveled up by coach on the Tuesday, the short notice of the appointment meaning that the train costs would be prohibitive (£200! The coach was a ridiculous £37 for two) and stayed in Hammersmith near the hospital.

Next morning, after a lovely outdoor breakfast, we walked down to the hospital. In the waiting room I didn’t notice how I was, but on reflection I know I was nervous and uncertain.

It is in the middle of this situation that mindfulness can help. There are two key steps

Step 1 – Pay attention

Notice what is happening in your body and mind. What can you feel in your body? Increased heart rate? Stomach turning? Faster breathing? Getting hotter? Acknowledge this experience. Feel it.

What thoughts are passing through your mind? Are you playing out scenarios? Are imaginary conversations or happenings flying through your mind. Notice them. Don’t follow the thought, just notice that it is there.

Step 2 Breathe into the body’s sensations

Breathe in and out. Breathe in and out where you can feel things happening in the body. Breathe into the body’s sensations. Experience the thoughts and body reactions. Slowly, as you live through this, you settle back into the present. Slowly, you begin to accept the present moment and its jagged edges begin to soften.

And me? Did mindfulness help me? I was called into see Mr Sandhu, Beci came in too. We sat and went through the background. How the condition started and how it progressed. Then he examined me with an endoscopy (camera up nose and into throat) and general physical examination.

At some point during this experience, after the endoscopy I think, I briefly came into the space totally. I noticed my feet on the floor, felt the floor through my shoes. I felt my bum on my seat. I noticed one breath in and out.

Then he asked a question, “Are you prepared to have an operation?”

“Yes” I answered in trepidation.

“We can fix this” he said.

This bald, confident statement was a shocking relief. Here was a man with certainty. He explained that it might be possible to do some laser work and/or an operation to widen the trachea. This later option would result in a ‘whisper’ of a voice, but a far more open airway and no tracheostomy. My consultant in Swansea had ruled this out as an option.

What a relief! This is hugely positive news. There still is a way to go, including some investigation under anaesthetic, to fully determine the options. I will still need to push to ensure that Mr Sandhu’s team are the ones who help me and I need to maintain a low stress life until the definitive operation, but the future looks a lot more positive.

And mindfulness? Mindfulness is a tremendous help, but it is a practice and one that needs practice!

Fear is very much on my mind. This is a significant week for me and I am aware that there is a considerable swirling of fear swooping in and out of my mind. As part of living through this period with acceptance, compassion and wise reactions I am attempting to lean into the fear rather than run away from or resist its insistent voice.

This intention has been supported by a kind friend who has shared some very helpful talks by Tara Brach on the subject. I am listening, reflecting and re-listening to these talks and as I am finding them very helpful I thought that I would share them here and then later in the week consider how they have helped me.

Tara Brach Talk on Fear 1

Tara Brach Talk on Fear 2

A mindful photography practice

This morning I practiced responding to the feeling of fear in an instinctive practice. My inclination was that I needed to get close to my subjects but be wide open. I chose to attach my widest angle lens (20mm) and headed to the beach. I responded instinctively to my environment, both on route and on location. Once there I took off my sandals, felt the sand between my toes and went with the flow. When Monty stopped to investigate his environment, I did the same. These are the four photos that resonated with me when I down loaded and edited them. A black and white conversion felt essential.

fear-1

fear-2

fear-3

fear-4