…And now back to our Altered Programming…

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“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” ― Leo Tolstoy

For the dear souls who signed up to my blog, I’m sorry that there’s been a long break in transmission, but changes were afoot, and they needed all my attention. Here’s what’s been going on.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that I’m always fishing, not for fish, but for knowledge, for information about what makes us who we are, and about what is learnt and what is innate. I do this because the journey of self-discovery can yield some great insights that help us live a better life.

For example, I knew that I hadn’t learnt the essential skills of resilience as a child. No one’s fault, it’s just the way the cookie crumbles, but it doesn’t stop me trying to develop this important skill now. It’s never too late to change – it’s an ongoing process. The way I do that is to continually test my boundaries and as I do, gain important feedback. Each time I try something new, something out of my comfort zone, I’ll know by my response, whether I have the skills to cope. When I don’t cope well, I know that I need to find out why I feel out of my depth. After a good dose of self-analysis and reframing my thinking, I’ll try again. If I succeed, I feel empowered knowing that I can dissolve the fear, or at least tame it a little. This kind of learning helps me expand the boundaries of my life and live more expansively, as opposed to a tiny life lived in fear. As a young professional woman, my world was expansive and exciting, but then, a decade ago, after I became ill with a mysterious illness, I developed anxiety and my world shrunk so much, that I was practically sitting on the fence, unable to move forward or backward. Life couldn’t get any smaller. My house was the only “safe” place. The irony is that while on one level home felt safe, it was also suffocating. It was a no win situation.

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So, to continue pushing my boundaries, I chose to do a course in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), to become a pastoral carer. The practical part of the course was conducted in a hospital and an aged care facility, two places I avoided like the plague, especially hospitals. I’ve had a bit of a phobia of hospitals after my health crisis, and so I wasn’t sure how I’d manage the practical part of the course. Of course it wasn’t easy, in fact it was truly confronting, especially the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). I’ve never seen so many machines attached to one person. I didn’t realise it, but my placement was in the largest trauma hospital in my city. The most challenging and traumatic of cases would be found here. Talk about really testing my resilience! Along with the ICU, there was the spinal unit, mental health unit, cardiac ward, every single unit was challenging in its own way. I met people dying from cancer, those who went in for a small routine operation only to wake up a paraplegic, mental health patients unable to string two words together because they were zombified by drugs. It was an eye opening experience.

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If we don’t have solid foundations, that is a strong sense of self and resilience, then helping those who are suffering, can tip us over the edge.

A program like CPE is challenging not just because there’s much to learn about effective listening skills and the art of being present, but you are charged with doing many hours of reflective work and here’s why. We need to know ourselves well before we can help others. We need to discover, what are our blind spots, our prejudices, do we have the strength to face really confronting situations? It doesn’t mean we need to be perfect, but being aware of beliefs, especially our negative beliefs, means we are then able to develop new ones and, whilst we’re working on our beliefs, we can work with people, always being aware of our own limitations. We cannot bring negative, unhelpful beliefs or fears to the bedside, because not only won’t we bring comfort to the patient, we could cause them distress and, even harm ourselves in the process. If we don’t have solid foundations, that is, a strong sense of self and resilience, then things can go pear-shaped, very quickly. During my course, I realised that I struggle with people of a particular character. Many of us believe that we’re not judgemental, but enter any public place, with a myriad of personalities and a mixed bag of socio-economic backgrounds, and you’re sure to find someone that will annoy or even intimidate you. Self-reflection helped me understand that I struggle with intimidating people, which I’ll write about in a future post. The course helped me delve into the reasons why I felt intimidated. I then able to slowly change my beliefs, as a result of my growing awareness.

This was followed by another freeing moment, when I realised that anxiety would no longer rule my life and that I was capable of much more than I’d led myself to believe. This turn-around occurred about half way through the course. I went from walking through the wards on jelly legs, to finally feeling safe and comfortable being in the hospital environment, and meeting people with all kinds of life-threatening conditions and injuries. I was forced to face my own feeling of vulnerability and it was not easy. Again, it was a signpost that I’d not developed resilience as a child. I’d never felt truly safe or empowered. But the great thing about self-reflective work and having a fabulous supervisor, I was able to drill down and find out where those fears came from, and reframe my beliefs and thoughts.

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The other thing I learnt about myself is that while I loved being with patients and helping them through a difficult time, I found it equally hard being in such grey and visually sterile environments. Don’t get me wrong, hospitals are amazing places – full of caring and skilled staff, working long hours, doing all they can to save people’s lives. But, wanting to help, can work against you if the environment isn’t right. I know pastoral carers who love working hospitals and I thought that I should too, but I don’t, because I’m different. I struggled with the lack of fresh air, open windows, colour, the presence of nature. The only living thing was the humans. I know the reason for not allowing plants, but colour? Why do we have to have grey walls and not mauve or sky blue, or a forest scene?I haven’t found a hospital like this in my home town yet, but if I do, I’ll be there in a flash!

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I know some people will think this strange, after all, aren’t I there to help people and not worry about the wall colour? Yes, but it must be a good fit for both parties. During our course, we also learnt to identify the environments that help us thrive, and therefore give the best care. Choosing the right place to work is as important as self-care, a necessarily, often ignored by those in caring roles. Self is as essential as giving good care. Because my peers all felt at home in a hospital, I thought that I should, too but I realised that sterile places are detrimental to my wellbeing. While I was no longer afraid of hospitals, the environment drained me. I understood that I prefer to work in more natural places, and that’s ok. It’s not a weakness, it’s not a fault, it’s just who I am. It’s horses for courses.

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Image: americanhistory.si.edu

I believe we are like tuning forks and certain jobs, places and people will resonate with us, while others won’t. I believe much of our growth journey is about discovering, what is a good fit, and not because someone says it is, or because we think, we should fit our round selves into a square holes.

So as much as I liked the idea of working in a hospital, I discovered a new place, which for me, is a most unlikely place, and one I stayed away from for many years. A place that is disliked or ignored by many, but nevertheless, unusual circumstances have lead me there. It’s a lovely old weather-board church, run by a progressive, female minister, who wants to build a loving community, and like tuning forks, our motives are in tune with each other. During my course, patients claimed to be “spiritual” and not “religious”. The minister and I want to help create a spiritual space for our community, without rules, and dogma, rather, to connect through our spirituality. It’s an exciting time as I get to use my pastoral care skills, and some of my professional communications skills in spreading love, support and caring to our local community.

Image: Perry Grone

I don’t how long I’ll stay, but it feels right at this moment. That’s the other thing I learnt from my CPE experience. Any of us can unexpectedly land in hospital and so plans should be kept very loose. I’ve agonised for too long about finding the right path and making the right choice. Woody Allen got it right when he said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”

So where to now? Well, I’m dipping my toe into the pastoral care waters, in my local community and allowing my inner compass to guide me.

How about you? Have you had feelings of heading somewhere other than where your head is telling you to go? Is your heart, your soul trying to take the lead? Will you follow it? If I were to pass on one piece of advice that I received time and again from my hospital patients and especially from those in aged care, it’s to seize the day my friends, because you never get another one like it, and you never know what’s around the corner!

Image: Chris Lawson
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Acceptance and Surrender. They’re not the same as Giving Up.

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Image: Bernard Hermant

“At fifteen life had taught me undeniably that surrender, in its place, was as honorable as resistance, especially if one had no choice.” – Maya Angelou

My commitment to writing regular posts fell by the wayside some months ago, not because I wasn’t writing, but because I seemed unable to finish anything I’d started. While I felt I had a lot to share, I’d become frustrated at my non-existent output, until I realised that the best course of action was to do nothing, let things be, surrender to life as it is right now.

But what does surrender really mean? Is it like giving up? And where does acceptance fit into all of this? I knew that these were concepts that would be helpful in living a more balanced life, so I thought I’d explore these concepts further. Read more

When changes are unseen

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Image: animal photos.me

In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself.” – Susan Sontag

I recently heard an interesting question put forward by a podcast presenter. She asked her guest if she would recognise herself from ten or fifteen years ago. The question drew my attention not only because it was a thought provoking idea, but also because an hour earlier, I’d stumbled across something I’d written ten years ago, to my mentor, during a dark time in my life. Reading my own journal entry, shocked me. I couldn’t believe that I had written those words. If I didn’t see my own handwriting, I could have sworn, it was the work of an imposter. Did I really feel and think like that? How could I not see that I was making things worse by the filters through which I was viewing my world and my situation? Was I blind to my own thought patterns? Clearly I was. I struggled to recognise this younger version of me.

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As I read my story of despair and loneliness, I felt sadness for that young version of me, but as I peered down the time tunnel, I could also see with such clarity, how my thoughts and beliefs made a difficult situation, even more difficult. Experience has taught me that rather than judge myself for the choices I made, nowadays, I show compassion for myself, because after all, most mistakes were made due to a lack of awareness. We all do the best we can with the tools we have at any point in time.

In this particular journal entry, I could see how my old myself was swelling with self pity, blocking my ability to view my own thought processes that were compounding an already difficult situation. Yes, I did find myself in a rather pox place. I’d been very sick for almost a year, finally able to go on a holiday with my family, only to come down with the flu the minute we arrived at our beautiful alpine location. While the rest of the family went off skiing, having snowball fights and seeing the sights, I was sick and alone in a hotel room, day after day, and only started to feel better the day before we headed back home.

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At the time, all I could see was the injustice of the moment, as though some invisible adjudicator deemed me unworthy of good health and happiness. This of course was just faulty thinking. There is no force, or high power that simply wants to play us like puppets, dishing out  positive or negative situations, depending on what mood it’s in. This is simply looking for someone to blame. I do believe in a greater power that is benevolent and the creator of all things, but I don’t believe it is a judgemental force. What I do know is that for the most part, I was the lead player in creating this situation. Getting sick was often the result of being unable to deal with stress. I lacked the skills of resilience when facing adversity. I was a black an white thinker and loved to punish myself for what I saw were dreadful failings. I wasn’t the first, nor will I be the last to get sick on a holiday, but with my blinkered eyes, I couldn’t see that.

It is so hard for us to see the progress that we’ve made over time. As multiple years cross our paths, those changes simply blend into the fabric of daily life. It’s not until we are given an opportunity to time travel and visit a younger version of ourselves, that we can contrast and compare, to see if, and how we have evolved; if our views have altered, our beliefs softened, our wisdom expanded.

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It is one of the reasons I have journaled for the past decade and diligently kept each book. Whenever I feel like I’ve made no progress, usually during one of those moments when an old unhelpful belief rears its ugly head, I’ll re-read an old journal entry to remind myself that while some beliefs may still be a work in progress, many others have  truly been transformed. While my physical body still presents some challenges, the real “I” has changed for the better, even though it’s often challenging work.

Sometimes, we also find that a part of our life remains stuck in the same difficult situation we once found ourselves in. For example, while my health is better, I’ve never regained the good health I enjoyed before I collided with a mysterious illness. It’s easy to think therefore that little has changed, but this isn’t true. While our physical bodies might not appear to have transformed, our minds on the other hand, are capable of great transformation, so much so, that over time, these changes can then go on to positively affect our bodies. I’m so much better than I was even five years ago, but not the same as ten years ago. But then that is only natural as my body is also ten years older. Occasionally, I still experience physical pain but I don’t suffer from it like I used to. The pain hasn’t changed, but my relationship to it has. The old me suffered deeply because I focussed on the injustice of the situation, whereas now I realise that nothing is fair or unfair, it just is. My pain has also reduced because I’ve dropped my obsession with being pain-free. Through acknowledgement and understanding I now know that it’s not a matter of fairness or justice, I simply experience certain symptoms.

Mindfulness and breathing techniques have also helped deal with physical and emotional pain. When I think I’ve not changed, I can see that I truly have. Our memories can gloss over events, alternating between emphasising the good, and the bad. It is  through our journals that we get a clearer understanding about how we were truly thinking and feeling at the time.

“Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.” —William Wordsworth

Therapeutic Journaling

If you don’t write in a journal, I suggest trying it. Not only is it a record of your own life, but the process of writing often frees us from the endless babble that takes place in our head. People who journal often find that allowing thoughts to flow onto a page helps them gain clarity because seeing their thoughts in writing, often helps them see more clearly what it is they’re thinking.  Oftentimes, the mind will rerun thoughts in an endless loop. Putting thoughts into writing, tells the brain that the matter has been recorded, and so there is no longer a need for that particular train of thought, to keep running along the same continuous track, never reaching its destination.

Try keeping a journal and see if it might bring with it a new way of seeing your thoughts and gaining insights into beliefs that may not be serving you. Once you can identify a negative thought, try to delve deeper and see if you can remember a time when you may have heard a carer bring up this viewpoint and how it might have influenced your own thought development. Once you are aware, you can choose to replace a negative thought with a more positive one. If you still struggle with this process, someone like a counsellor  can assist with this process.

Happy Writing and Happy Discovery!

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